When this pandemic emerged, Government ministers were understandably fearful that the NHS could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of infected patients.
But in the weeks since the Prime Minister made his first sombre statement to the nation on the threat posed by coronavirus, this rational concern has morphed into an all-consuming tunnel vision about Covid-19.
The result is that our healthcare system is abandoning its most basic responsibilities. As thousands of Britons are discovering – anyone who is struck down by a serious acute illness or who has developed worrying symptoms of disease – the new reality is a dangerous one.
The Mail reports today that some stroke and heart attack patients are routinely waiting more than two hours for an ambulance, while 2,300 cancer diagnoses are being missed each week because patients are not going to see their GP or because they are not being referred for urgent tests and scans at hospital.
Pictured: Members of the military and private contractors help to prepare the ExCel centre in London on March 30 ahead of the opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital
Indeed, the cancer diagnostic system has all but seized up.
Another 400 cancers a week are, it is estimated, being missed because breast, cervical and bowel cancer screening has been suspended. For any of these patients, delay can be a death sentence.
In addition, the NHS has cancelled most routine surgeries for three months. That’s tens of thousands of people who must endure further pain and distress as they wait for the operation or procedure that might dramatically improve their quality of life.
All of these individuals are collateral damage in the war against coronavirus.
And yet if you walk around most NHS hospitals today, you’ll find whole wards are empty; operating theatres are eerily silent, while scanning equipment lies unused. As for the 4,000-bed Nightingale hospital in London, it has seen only a handful of patients.
Right now coronavirus is dominating the news cycle, but the next public health disaster facing this country will be the millions whose lives were put at risk because they were neglected during this crisis.
My own specialism is cancer, where the number of patients being referred by GPs for urgent hospital appointments has dropped by 75 per cent since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
Pictured: Doctors and nurses clap as two men become the first patients to be discharged from London’s Nightingale Hospital after being treated for coronavirus on April 19
When this pandemic emerged, Government ministers were understandably fearful that the NHS could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of infected patients, writes Karol Sikora
If this continues for six months, I suspect that in the years to come there will be at least 50,000 excess cancer deaths. That is a terrifying number.
Normally about 30,000 people a month are diagnosed with cancer. But this April it’s likely to be fewer than 5,000. And the reason for that is, quite simply, they are not being diagnosed.
Even before coronavirus hit, many of Britain’s oncology departments were at breaking point. We don’t like to admit it but access to health is rationed in this country.
Some of the most expensive treatments and drugs are withheld on cost grounds, and there is a system of in-built delays to ration costly tests, meaning it can take three months for a CT scan. (Indeed, that’s the main reason why our cancer survival rates lag behind the rest of Europe.) Extending these delays further, and thereby giving a patient’s cancer the chance to move towards stage three or four, with secondary cancers coursing through the body, can be fatal.
And yet this is what we are risking by not diagnosing patients.
Pictured: Paramedics outside the ExCel Centre in London which has been turned into a coronavirus hospital
Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel centre in London
It may be that they are wary of visiting their GP or attending hospital in case they are exposed to the virus. Or they may not want to burden a service stretched to the limit – but I have to say that the NHS isn’t helping itself. Yesterday, I went to our local GP surgery to pick up a prescription for a neighbour. It felt like entering Fort Knox. The receptionist barked at me, and the atmosphere would certainly be intimidating for the elderly, frail and the anxious.
But for anyone with suspected symptoms of cancer seeking NHS treatment, the GP – the gatekeeper to hospital referral – must be the first port of call.
It isn’t an illness that can be diagnosed on Skype or Zoom.
Most people present with vague symptoms such as hoarseness, a cough, weight loss, grumbling stomach pain, back ache. Only a doctor knows to look out for these symptoms and order proper diagnostic checks such as CT or MRI scans.
But I’m afraid that thousands of people are today living with symptoms of a disease which will eventually kill them.
Given the current data on coronavirus, I believe there are grounds for believing we are coming to the end of the pandemic, although further waves cannot be ruled out.
What this should mean is that the NHS quickly resumes its bread-and-butter work: The routine operations, the cardiograms and the cancer tests.
And here’s one way of doing that. It is absurd that London’s vast new Nightingale hospital is virtually unused nearly three weeks after opening. By Monday, it had treated only 41 patients. More of these hospitals are opening around the country.
Coronavirus patients should be moved there en masse, and new admissions taken there first. It’s been reported that there is a shortage of critical care nurses at the Nightingale, but I believe those roles can be filled by the tens of thousands of retired NHS staff – my wife included – who have declared their willingness to return to duty.
The Government must also follow up more rigorously on its pledge to use private hospitals to treat NHS patients with heart disease or cancer.
Abandoning Britain’s non-coronavirus patients as we are doing is unacceptable – and a stain on us all.