Plan B is a go. And just like that, more mask mandates, working from home guidance and, most controversially, vaccine passports have been rushed in. While we wait, of one thing we can be certain: Covid decisions this winter are once again being determined by one institution. While we wait to find out more about the omicron variant, there is one thing we can say with certainty: our future rests once again on the ability of the National Health Service to handle an uptick in cases.
…Yet the NHS has a guilty little secret, rarely talked about given its status as the national religion. On many metrics, capacity has not been rising – it’s actually been falling.
Perhaps the most dangerous three words in the English language are ‘Protect the NHS’.
After 18 months of discouraging people from getting treatment in hospital, we are now seeing the catastrophic results.
A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) this week found that up to 740,000 potential cancer patients have been missed since the beginning of the first lockdown in March 2020.
These are people who should have been referred urgently for investigation in hospital, for a disease where delays exponentially increase the risk of death.
The NAO estimates that, since the pandemic began, between 35,000 and 60,000 fewer people than expected have started treatment for cancer.
Up to 740,000 potential cancer cases that should have been urgently referred by GPs have been “missed” since the first lockdown, according to a damning report.
Watchdogs also warned that NHS waiting lists could keep growing until 2025 and even reach double the current six million.
Charities said the report by the National Audit Office (NAO) reflected a “devastating” situation for many patients, with medics warning of “the biggest cancer catastrophe ever to hit the NHS”.
When announcing the national lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the NHS risked being overwhelmed if the measures weren’t taken.
But statistics suggest that the proportion of beds currently occupied by patients is actually lower than usual.
So how can both things be true?
…To create that wiggle room, there has been a big decrease in patients coming in for non-urgent operations and outpatient appointments, to ensure that space is there and pressures are not increased.
Even in September 2020, when hospitals were beginning to increase the number of operations carried out, these were still 25% lower than in previous years.
This also helps explain why there are also fewer patients in hospitals this year, as well as fewer beds.
The impact of this is a large backlog and the potential for certain treatments – such as cancer care – being delayed.
Scores of MPs and former ministers have urged the prime minister to tackle a backlog in NHS cancer care that threatens to lead to thousands of early deaths over the next decade.
One senior oncologist has claimed that in a worst-case scenario the effects of the pandemic could result in 30,000 excess cancer deaths over the next decade.