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The influential Health and Social Care Committee has today (1 October 2020) published a report warning that NHS disruption could lead to ‘tens of thousands of avoidable deaths within the year’ following the suspension of a large proportion of normal services to focus on tackling COVID-19.

The hard-hitting report ‘Delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic and beyond’ calls for urgent action to tackle the significant backlog of patients waiting for NHS appointments and medical treatment.

Impact of NHS disruption

The MPs highlight that serious illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease, went undiagnosed or untreated due to the disruption to NHS services.

During the first peak of the pandemic, many hospitals suspended cancer surgery despite the Chief Executive of the NHS, Sir Simon Stevens, promising that cancer treatment would continue.

The Guardian reports that once the lockdown began on 23 March, GP urgent referrals for cancer fell by 62%, the number of MRI and CT scans to diagnose the disease plummeted by 75% and by mid-May, 36,000 cancer operations had been cancelled.

According to the Health Service Journal, the latest official data from mid-September shows that nearly 6,400 people with suspected cancer have waited more than 100 days following a referral from their GP to cancer services for diagnostic tests or treatment.

Breast cancer screening has been hit hard by the NHS disruption. Nearly one million women in the UK are waiting for potentially life-saving mammograms because breast screening ground to a halt when the pandemic struck, according to the charity Breast Cancer Now.

Worryingly, the charity anticipates that around 8,600 of the women caught up in the backlog could have been living with undetected breast cancer, with their diagnosis delayed due to the detrimental impact of COVID-19 on the NHS.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health and social care committee chair and former health secretary said:

“The pandemic has massively impacted normal NHS services, something that could have been mitigated with earlier infection control measures in hospitals and clearer communication to patients whose care was disrupted. Weekly testing of NHS staff has been repeatedly promised in hotspot areas – but is still not being delivered. Failure to do so creates a real risk that the NHS will be forced to retreat into being a largely COVID-only service during a second spike.”

Routine COVID-19 testing for NHS staff

The report demands routine COVID-19 testing for all NHS staff in all parts of the country (clinical staff as well as cleaners, porters and other support workers) and that it should be introduced as quickly as capacity allows and before the winter-flu season begins.

MPs have set the Government a one-month deadline to explain its failure to roll out routine testing for all healthcare staff and to confirm if it has the capacity to handle the large number of extra tests and when they can be delivered.

Protecting patient safety

Mary Smith, Associate Legal Director of Novum Law, who is based in our Bristol office, and is an expert in patient safety issues, said:

“It is absolutely vital that mass COVID-19 testing is available for all NHS staff as we enter this critical time when a second spike of Coronavirus is looking likely and the winter flu season is now upon us.

“We must ensure that the backlog of patients awaiting screening or diagnostic scans and treatment is cleared and that the delays seen so far do not persist.

“Failing to deliver weekly testing for healthcare workers and to ensure safe systems for the treatment of non-COVID patients could lead to further severe disruption and ultimately, risk lives.”