As we move out of Covid restrictions, with full easing of rules in England and Wales from 19 July 2021, researchers have started to look back at how Covid-19 has impacted health services that are not directly linked to the pandemic. One of the key concerns is the backlog of treatment which was placed on hold while many NHS resources were directed towards caring for patients with Covid-19

It has been discovered that in 2020 there was a significant reduction in emergency and non-urgent treatment with hospitals completing 1.5 million fewer surgical procedures than would be expected from trends in previous years, equating to a 33% reduction in surgical treatment. There were 108,000 fewer emergency operations for conditions such as heart disease, appendicitis and broken bones, 900,000 fewer semi-urgent procedures, such as gall-bladder operations and reconstructions following burns, and almost 500,000 fewer hip and knee replacement surgeries, compared with previous years.

There are several possible explanations for this. NHS England has stated that fewer people came forward for treatment and it must be accepted that some patients have been too afraid of contracting Covid to attend hospitals. However, researchers have also found evidence that planned non-urgent surgery was postponed to enable the health service to focus on the pandemic.

One of the researchers, Tom Dobbs from Swansea University Medical School, has said that the interruption of surgical treatment will be felt by millions of patients for many years to come. In his opinion, ‘delays in the diagnosis and surgical management of cancer patients will lead to an increase in deaths, while those waiting for semi-urgent or elective surgery are likely to experience a worsening of their condition’. The president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Professor Neil Mortensen, agreed with the researchers’ findings and has called on the Government to commit £1 billion for surgery every year for the next five years to enable surgeons to work through the backlog of patients that has developed since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

Arran Macleod, a senior associate in the clinical negligence department at Penningtons Manches Cooper, specialising in orthopaedic claims, comments: “While the NHS and its staff deserve an enormous amount of credit for the job they have done in managing Covid-19, the number of procedures that have been postponed or otherwise delayed during the course of the last 18 months is very worrying. Even if patients are not deemed ‘urgent’ cases, many will be symptomatic and will have been living in pain and discomfort for an additional prolonged period of time. Some patients’ symptoms will inevitably have become worse and in many cases they will need more extensive surgery than would have been required had delays in their treatment not occurred.

“Now that the country’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is in full swing, and infection and hospitalisation rates are low relative to the height of the pandemic, it is important that hospitals begin working through the backlog of patients waiting for treatment as quickly as possible. Patients who have faced significant delays should be re-assessed and re-categorised based upon any deterioration in their condition and/or symptoms, and those most in need should be offered treatment promptly to avoid any further delay and additional suffering.”