Covid-19 and the NHS: Is it Business as Usual or Unusual?

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15 June, 2020

As lockdown begins to ease, more businesses are starting to open up in a bid to get back to 'normal' (or the new normal) but what does this mean for the NHS getting back to 'normal'?

During the pandemic, the NHS understandably closed many services to protect both patients and staff alike. However, AvMA (Actions Against Medical Accidents, a charity for patient safety and justice) have now raised concerns about the consequences for patients with other conditions which need urgent treatment or diagnostic procedures. During the pandemic, NHS suspended its national screening programmes, which included smear screening for cervical cancer as well as screening for bowel cancer and breast cancer.

AvMA reports that many NHS hospitals are running at about 60% capacity and the purpose-built Nightingale hospitals are now standing empty. They go further and confirm that although some parts of the NHS have shown that urgent services can be kept available during the pandemic with good planning, sufficient personal protective equipment and other safeguards for both staff and patients, to minimise the risk, the services available have been nowhere near enough. It is now important that services for patients with potentially life-threatening conditions resume operating, without this the NHS runs the risk of a catastrophe which could affect thousands more patients who do not have Covid-19.

The Guardian has identified a patient who has been personally affected by the lack of services during the pandemic and is now at serious risk of dying after his cancer went undetected whilst waiting months for a scan during the period of closed services. The patient had a tumour which measured 14cm in his pelvis and 30 small tumours in his lungs, which he believes developed during the time he could not get a scan. This comes after several other cases have been reported, including:

  • A woman in her 40s whose breast cancer spread into her blood and bones when her treatment was delayed;
  • A woman suffering severe depression when she could not have surgery to fix a badly broken arm that had not healed properly;
  • A young woman with severe dental problems who ended up with severe depression when she could not get treated.

Peter Walsh, the chief executive of AvMA commented to The Guardian that, "Sadly, there are many other patients with various potentially life-threatening conditions who have also been missing out, often with serious consequences."

The Guardian also reported that a spokesperson for NHS England commented that "cancer services are largely now open, ready and able to receive all patients who need care. Anyone concerned about a possible cancer symptom should contact their GP practice and come forward for a check-up". This is a step in the right direction, but with a growing back log of patients requiring diagnostic services, urgent treatment or access to neurological and cardiology services, it will take some time to catch up.

AvMA point out that one thing that has been missing in all of this is giving patients themselves any say on a matter that is likely to seriously affect their life and health. There is no doubt that the NHS had to make a quick and difficult decision in the beginning, but lockdown has now been going on for 12 weeks and so more consideration could now be given to voices of the patients' groups and patients themselves.

The intention to protect patients and staff during the pandemic is honorable, but it needs to be weighed against the risks of those patients not getting diagnosed or treated for conditions which are likely to harm or even cause death. AvMA are calling for a clear strategy from the Government and that priority is given to this, which we at Forbes welcome.

For more information contact Leonie Millard in our Clinical Negligence department via email or phone on 01254 770517. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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