The chief executive of the Northern Trust has reported that 50 per cent of patients in Antrim Area Hospital have tested positive for Covid-19. Across the whole of the north there are now 840 Covid inpatients, 63 of which are in intensive care and hospitals are operating at 95 per cent capacity.

Kieran McCausland, Workers’ Party Upper Bann said

‘In order to cope with the extra pressures of Covid the NHS have been forced to withdraw care from non-Covid patients.  While fewer people are presenting at A&E and primary care for treatment there has also been a distinct rationing of care by cancelling treatments and appointments to ensure that capacity is freed up to deal with Covid pressures. It is important to fully understand the impact of these disruptions to care and ensure that there is a strategy in place to drive recovery.

The impact on restricting care for non-Covid patients will have had a serious impact but the fact this has been extended into the waves that followed means that the impact will be far more serious and, in many cases, catastrophic.

Cancer services have been particularly badly hit across all pathways. National screening programmes have been suspended, urgent two week wait referrals have dropped, referrals from GPs for diagnostic tests are fewer and there is also a significant drop in the number of cancelled surgeries. Treatments have also dropped, and clinical trials have been disrupted.

There is no doubt this will have a severe effect in delayed diagnosis and treatment for patients. Delays in referral naturally lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment which could ultimately lead to death. With illness like cancer, time is of the essence, early diagnosis and treatment is the difference between life and death. A study conducted by the IPPR focused on three types of cancer, lung, breast and colorectal and assumed that diagnosis would happen one stage later during the pandemic.

The report although focused on England gives us some idea what we can expect across the board. For lung cancer the five year survival rate looks to drop from 16.2 per cent to 15.4 per cent, breast cancer from 85 per cent to 83.5 per cent and for colorectal from 58.4 per cent to 56.1 per cent. These drops are significant to say the least and would be likely to continue for some time following a ‘return to normal’. The study finds that it is essential for the government to put in place measures to restore the NHS’s performance. This would include the need to address the backlog of cancer care not just through referrals but through a return to diagnostic services. The recommendations in the report must be followed immediately.

  • Makes diagnosis and treatment of cancer “Covid-safe’ – and ensures the public perceive it

to be so 

  • Increase diagnostic and treatment capacity in the NHS as quickly as possible. 
  • Builds on the recent obesity drive in the form of a comprehensive new public health strategy to prevent illness
  • Increases diagnostic and treatment capacity by committing to match OECD levels of CT and MRI machines. 

Cancer is only one illness that will see a significant and worrying delay in diagnosis and treatment. Equally diabetes, cardiology, ophthalmology, mental health among other illnesses will also be affected. The current pandemic has exposed the problems within the NHS in terms of capacity and funding. This is by no means a reflection on those working within the system who have worked tirelessly and selflessly at great risk to themselves and their families to ensure we remain as safe as possible but a reflection on the government who have starved the NHS and its workers of what it requires to function at its full capacity. We cannot simply revert to the same system once the pandemic finishes, it must be used as an opportunity to design a more resilient system. If WHO are correct this will not be the last pandemic we have to face, and it is therefore vital for future planning that we ensure we have a healthcare system that is fit for purpose and ensure that both staff and patients are safe.