Delays to medical treatment due to COVID-19

Frontline doctors, nurses and support staff have worked tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to treat critically ill coronavirus patients.

However, the focus on the virus has caused huge disruption to healthcare services across the UK, with millions of patients with other serious conditions experiencing delayed treatment.

During the peak of COVID-19, almost all routine or elective surgery was stopped, many outpatient appointments and referrals were delayed, and screening and tests for medical conditions, including cancer, were paused, or cancelled.

Impact of delayed treatment

Delayed treatment due to COVID-19 is having a significant impact on patient safety, causing severe pain and suffering, avoidable harm, and risk to people’s lives.

The widespread interruptions to healthcare services have severely affected patients with a wide range of potentially life-threatening conditions including:

  • All types of cancer including lung cancer, bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and ovarian cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes and diabetes-related complications
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Respiratory disease
  • Liver disease

In addition, many orthopaedic patients on waiting lists for hip and knee surgery have found their essential treatment cancelled or delayed due to the pandemic.

Treatment delays have caused concern among many healthcare professionals.  A survey of doctors carried out by the British Medical Association (BMA) found that more than half of doctors believe the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened care for patients who do not have the virus.

NHS waiting lists

Before COVID-19, the NHS was already struggling to meet demand for its services and failing to reach performance targets.

There are more than four million people on the NHS waiting list for routine procedures. This is set to rise considerably. The NHS Confederation estimates the waiting list could reach 10 million by the end of the year – possibly higher if there is a second wave of coronavirus.

Understandably, this has caused a lot of worry for patients and their families. For some people, treatment delays or the cancellation of treatment due to COVID-19 has caused their health to deteriorate and they now face a far worse prognosis.

Cancer treatment delays

According to Cancer Research UK, over 2.4 million people in the UK have been left waiting for cancer screening, further tests or cancer treatment due to COVID-19.

For one cancer patient, Wendy Peake, COVID-19 has meant her NHS clinical drug trial to treat her rare eye cancer (ocular melanoma) was cancelled indefinitely. With her potentially life-saving cancer treatment halted, she has had no option but to try and raise the money herself for private medical treatment.

Wendy and her lawyer, patient safety expert Mary Smith, have shared her story with the media including The Guardian, BBC One’s Panorama and the Daily Mail, to raise awareness of the devastating impact of cancer treatment delays on patients’ lives.

Medical negligence and COVID-19

Many patients’ conditions have worsened due to delayed treatment and cancellations, leading to complications and the need for further, more invasive treatment. In some cases, patients’ lives have been put at risk and tragically, some have been told their condition is now terminal.

As a specialist medical negligence law firm with expertise in medical law and patient safety issues, we have been contacted by patients and their families up and down the country who have been affected by delayed treatment due to COVID-19.

Many are concerned about the effects of delays to essential treatments such as elective surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and clinical trials as well as patients who were unable to access urgent diagnostics including MRI scans, CT scans, blood tests and biopsies during lockdown.

Legal advice after delayed treatment due to COVID-19

Our team of specialist medical negligence solicitors are very concerned about how delayed treatment due to COVID-19 has impacted patient safety.

Despite the Government requisitioning thousands of hospital beds from private providers and building several Nightingale hospitals, most of the additional space, facilities and clinical care went unused during the pandemic. These resources could have been used for non-COVID patients.

At Novum Law we believe everyone has the right to access healthcare when they need it. According to Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Government has a systemic duty to have a properly functioning healthcare framework in place to protect patients’ lives.

Mary Smith, Associate Legal Director from our Bristol office and a patient safety expert, says:

“For patients to be denied potentially life-saving diagnostics and treatment when hospitals were empty or running far below normal capacity, and so many doctors and other healthcare workers were able and willing to treat them, is a clear breach of their human rights. Everyone has the right to equitable access healthcare when they need it.

“We are working with the patient safety and justice charity AvMA (Action against Medical Accidents) and Patient Safety Learning to call on the Government to take urgent action to clear the significant backlog of patients waiting for treatment.”

Contact our medical negligence lawyers

If you or a family member has concerns that delayed treatment due to COVID-19 have had a serious impact on your health, or you are worried about the cancellation or withdrawal of medical treatment or clinical trials, our specialist medical negligence solicitors are on standby to offer expert legal help and support.

For a free, no obligation chat about what options are available to you call us today on Freephone 0800 884 0777, email or contact us online.

Frequently Asked Questions

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, action was taken to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed with potentially large numbers of patients critically ill with the virus. This meant that thousands of patients’ medical treatment and surgery was cancelled to free up resources to treat people with COVID-19.

Yes, delays to medical treatment can put lives at risk.  In some serious illnesses, such as cancer, timely treatment is essential to maximise patients’ chances of survival. Any delays to treatment may result in patients’ conditions worsening, making it harder for doctors to provide effective care. In some cases, it may lead to life-threatening irreversible complications or a terminal prognosis.

If your treatment or surgery is still outstanding, you should contact your consultant’s secretary in the first instance.  If this does not work, you can complain via the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) or the complaints team at the hospital.

If you believe that a current delay to treatment or surgery is causing you harm, please contact one of our expert medical negligence lawyers, as we may be able to intervene on your behalf.

Yes, in some instances, you may be able to make a medical negligence claim due to COVID-19 treatment delays.

If you are in this situation, it is important to seek expert legal advice from a specialist medical negligence solicitor. To make a claim, you will need to demonstrate you have suffered avoidable harm due to an unreasonable delay to your treatment or surgery. This will depend on the urgency of your situation and the resources available at your local healthcare service at the time.

If you have suffered unnecessarily due to delays, Novum Law’s expert medical negligence solicitors will be able to advise you on whether you may have a claim.

If you have a question that is not listed above, please visit our FAQs page. Alternatively, please call our specialist team on Freephone 0800 884 0777 or contact us online for a free, no-obligation chat.


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