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Waiting lists: The concerning healthcare crisis left in Covid’s shadow

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When lockdown was announced this time last year, it was a triple blow for Beth Purvis, 41. Not only would she have to attend hospital appointments alone and in fear of catching Covid, but it also meant the cancellation of vital surgery to remove a cancerous nodule from her lungs. Now, with the cancer having spread to her brain, she wonders how different her cancer treatment would have been if it wasn’t for coronavirus. Might the surgery to remove that nodule have gone ahead if she had lived in a different postcode?

While the NHS has adapted and rallied to cope with the pandemic, another health crisis has sprung up in Covid’s wake. Missed diagnoses, spiralling waiting times and reduced safeguarding opportunities are just some of what non-Covid patients have had to contend with since the country’s healthcare system was forced into battle with a brand new virus. Health chiefs are now warning that these non-Covid patients have become the “collateral damage” of the pandemic.

Since the start of lockdown, the figure for unnecessary cancer deaths is estimated to be in the tens of thousands and the British Heart Foundation warned in November that almost 5,000 more people had died from heart problems than would have been expected. As of September, almost 140,000 patients in England had been waiting more than a year for surgery — 100 times the number in 2019.

Mother-of-two Beth Purvis has now been told her cancer is incurable

With lengthening waiting times and many illnesses going undiagnosed, the problem is only likely to worsen. Breast Cancer Now estimates that up to 10,000 UK women could be living with the disease undetected and consultants have warned of a surge in oral cancer cases caused by delays to dental care. Meanwhile, cancer research charity Eve Appeal recently found that six per cent of women invited for a cervical screening in the past 12 months had been refused an appointment. The programme is estimated to save 4,000 lives a year.

Purvis’s operation, due to take place at the Royal Marsden in Chelsea two days after the first lockdown announcement, was cancelled at the last minute. Two months later she was told the cancer had spread to her brain. It is now incurable.

Among the spiralling figures there are also widening disparities between those receiving and not receiving care. More than half of the UK’s 102 million GP appointments took place over the phone or video between March and July last year, but digital maturity — the ability to access appointments virtually — between patients and surgeries varies significantly. Even if patients can access online appointments, many abuse victims don’t feel safe opening up from home.

Beth Purvis with her husband Richard and children Joseph and Abigail

There are geographical disparities, too. Deborah James, a bowel cancer patient and presenter on the BBC’s You, Me and The Big-C podcast, recently warned of a “postcode lottery” of cancer care, with treatment going ahead in some hospitals and not others. Meanwhile an investigation by The Observer recently discovered disparities in waiting times for NHS mental health services of up to 14 weeks between council areas, meaning those at risk of suicide are slipping through the net. The gap is likely to only get wider, with the chief executive of NHS Providers warning that “very large numbers” of staff are expected to go on long-term sick leave or quit in the coming months.

For some patients, the warnings come too late. “It was like starting the treatment again,” says Kris Chadwick, 44, whose breast cancer treatment was delayed by 12 weeks, forcing her to shield at home in Tooting alone – she lost her husband, Matt, to brain cancer in 2013 and has set up a blog, Chadders Cancer Club, to create a sense of community for others.

“Not being able to see [family and friends] in person has been cripplingly sad,” agrees bowel cancer patient Bobby Bertoli, 28, who says that Covid delays added “three or four angsty months” to his painful wait for a colonoscopy. By the time the museum officer was diagnosed with stage four cancer last year, the disease had spread to his neck, liver and lungs.

Breast cancer patient Kris Chadwick with her late husband Matt

/ Kris Chadwick

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