The devastating cost of efforts to "protect the NHS" at the height of the coronavirus pandemic has been exposed by a new analysis of 200 health conditions, which reveals that hospital admissions plummeted by up to 90 per cent.
Experts said the findings were "staggering" and could mean thousands of extra deaths. They warned that the situation must not be repeated as hospitals come under growing pressure during the second wave of the pandemic, with operations being cancelled.
During lockdown, the Government urged the public to "Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives." This message was intended to ensure people followed the lockdown advice, but saw people with urgent needs deterred from attending hospital for fear of catching coronavirus or being a burden on the health service. Planned treatments were routinely put on hold.
There are fears the same could happen again, as ministers have echoed that message in reference to the second wave.
Earlier this month, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, warned that the pandemic was at a "perilous" moment that could cause the "implosion" of the NHS in the winter unless levels were suppressed.
He said: "We know from bitter experience that the more coronavirus spreads, the harder it is to do all the other vital work of the NHS. The message to the public must be that we all have a part to play to control this virus."
Hospitals in Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool, Swansea and Plymouth are among those who have begun cancelling planned surgery. University Hospitals Birmingham has warned that it will turn away A&E arrivals who do not need urgent help.
On Sunday, there were a further 16,982 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
Separate figures show that there were 4,974 Covid-19 patients in hospital in England on Sunday, up from 3,451 a week ago. A total of 632 patients with confirmed Covid-19 were admitted to hospitals in England on Friday, compared with 544 a week earlier.
The research, by healthcare analyst Dr Foster, shows that admissions relating to a host of diseases saw a sharp drop in April and May this year. Those for prostate cancer – the most common form of cancer in men, normally diagnosed in around 50,000 men a year, fell by 64 per cent.
There were just 4,640 admissions to hospital in April and May, compared with a five-year average of 12,589, NHS Digital figures show.
Bowel cancer – the second biggest cancer killer in the UK – saw a 39 per cent drop in admissions, with just 8,184 cases seen, when around 13,488 would have been expected. The number involving breast cancer – the most common form of cancer for women – slumped by 30 per cent, with 25,711 rather than the 36,848 average.
Admissions for patients with "non-specific cardiac chest pain" – a red flag condition which can indicate a heart attack – fell by 41 per cent, while those for patients with a specific heart attack diagnosis dropped by 27 per cent.
Meanwhile, admissions to diagnose or treat gastrointestinal disorders were down by 90 per cent.
Earlier this month, NHS chiefs launched a campaign called "Help Us to Help You", assuring patients that they will not be viewed as a burden if they seek help for non-Covid ailments following concerns about the effects of the the Government's advice to "protect the NHS".
Experts have said poor access for diagnosis and care during the pandemic could see an extra 35,000 deaths from cancer this year.
Last week, the Care Quality Commission said millions of patients had missed out on GP appointments since lockdown, meaning fewer referrals to hospital for vital checks.
In total there were almost 27 million fewer GP appointments carried out between March and August this year, compared with the same period last year.
Kruti Shrotri, the Cancer Research UK policy manager, said: "These figures provide further evidence of the devastating impact that Covid-19 has had on diagnosing and treating patients.
"As health services are now having to manage a resurgence of Covid-19 on top of usual winter pressures, it's critical that we take forward the lessons learnt so far to ensure cancer patients get the care they need through a second wave of the virus."
The number of patients starting cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiology between April and July is 26 per cent lower than the same period last year, with around 31,000 patients missing out, the charity said.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, the associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation and a consultant cardiologist, said: “We are sadly seeing the fallout of people not getting cardiovascular care during this pandemic – with thousands of excess deaths caused by these conditions. It's vital that people can access healthcare as they usually would.”
Data shows more than 4,400 extra deaths from heart disease and stroke in Britain during the first four months of the pandemic.
Karen Stalbow, of Prostate Cancer UK, said that while most localised prostate cancer grows slowly, it was critical that the most urgent cases were not forced to endure further waits.
She said: "Some men simply cannot afford to wait, and as we enter the second wave of the pandemic, it is vital that hospitals can continue to provide treatments for those most at risk of their cancer progressing."
Tom Binstead, the director of strategy and analytics at Dr Foster, said some of the figures were "staggering", with falls seen "across the board" including in almost all emergency activity other than childbirth.
He said: "Overall, the analysis suggests that the long-term effects of the pandemic are likely to be far reaching, with a future spike in demand possible due to missed diagnoses and postponed procedures. Cancers may now require a greater level of treatment, or even be untreatable, if they have been left undetected or untreated as a result of the crisis."
An NHS spokesman said: "At the height of the first coronavirus peak and lockdown, some people chose to postpone care, but since then hospital admissions have now rebounded, routine operations have more than doubled and cancer treatments are now taking place at well above usual levels.
"The NHS message to the public has been quite clear – do not delay, help us help you by coming forward so you can get the care you need."
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