Socialist Worker

Ten million could soon be stuck waiting for NHS care

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2709

Health workers in UCH hospital, central London, demand action over the NHS crisis in April

Health workers in UCH hospital, central London, demand action over the NHS crisis in April


Health bosses fear the Covid-19 crisis could see the number of people waiting for NHS treatment double to ten million by the end of the year.

The NHS was so weakened by cuts and privatisation that it was wholly unprepared for Covid-19. When the virus hit all other areas of health provision were stopped or drastically reduced so that coronavirus patients could be treated.

And in mid-March thousands of older patients were decanted from hospitals to care homes—with no tests to determine if they had the virus.

The projection about waiting lists came as Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling helped shape the coronavirus response strategy, said thousands of deaths could have been prevented if the Tories had acted sooner.

He told the Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday, “We knew the epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced.

"So had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.”

The government was also dealt a blow by the Royal College of Pathologists, which warned that problems with Britain’s coronavirus testing regime had to be “urgently addressed” if the country was to develop an effective strategy for combating the disease.

Pandemic

The total number of people waiting to undergo a procedure in a hospital in England stood at 4.4 million before the pandemic. They included operations such as a hernia repair, cataract removal or hip or knee replacement

It then fell to 4.2 million because in March GPs referred fewer patients for care to help hospitals that feared they would be overwhelmed.

However, the NHS Confederation estimates that it is likely to reach 9.8 million by the end of the year. This is as a result of staff shortages and hospitals having to cap the number of patients they can treat at any one time because of strict physical distancing rules.

In a “pessimistic” scenario—if there is a second wave of the virus—the waiting list of people who are meant to be treated within 18 weeks could hit 10.8 million.

And even under the confederation’s best-case “optimistic” scenario, about 8.1 million people would be waiting.

Any of those three totals would be far in excess of the record 4.5 million who have ever been on the referral to treatment waiting list.

The NHS Confederation, which represents health and care bosses, said emergency funding and longer-term spending were needed. The body said the NHS faces an “uphill battle” as it tries to restart cancer, stroke and heart care while helping thousands of sick and recovering Covid-19 patients.

Significantly 

The already-long waiting lists were “certain to rise significantly”, the body said. And coronavirus patients would continue to require care in recovery including respiratory and psychological treatment.

It added that care was being delivered by “exhausted and traumatised staff”, and health bosses had to stay prepared for a second wave.

The Royal College of Nursing pointed out that the NHS in England was short of about 40,000 nurses. It warned it will be a “struggle” for “burnt-out” nursing staff on short-staffed wards, care homes or in clinics to restart services.

“The legacy of this pandemic is yet to dawn—the professionals are still focused on the here and now,” a spokesperson said.

Anxious, exhausted and angry—health workers speak out
Anxious, exhausted and angry—health workers speak out
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Over the past fortnight, cardiology services have restarted in England. But the British Heart Foundation warned last Friday of a backlog, as an estimated 28,000 heart procedures had been delayed since the outbreak of coronavirus.

Cancer services are also starting to reopen.

Cancer Research estimates about 2.4 million people in Britain are waiting for screening, treatment or tests, with a potential 23,000 cancers having gone undiagnosed during lockdown.

Steven McIntosh of Macmillan Cancer Support said action was needed to enable cancer patients to get care. “Coronavirus has created a ticking time bomb of undiagnosed and untreated cancer in Britain, which is leaving many people living with cancer feeling desperately anxious and alone,” he said. 

“We need urgent action to address the uncertainty of delayed cancer services and prevent coronavirus resulting in a serious spike in cancer deaths.

“All UK governments must rapidly restore cancer care and deal with the backlog in treatment whilst keeping staff and patients safe during the pandemic.”

The Tories have created appalling problems in the NHS. Their reckless abandonment of the lockdown to drive people back to work will make them worse.

Johnson insisted on Wednesday it was “too early to judge ourselves”. It's not. Get out.


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