From one health crisis to another – access to healthcare amid Covid-19 and NHS immunity

Almost a year on since the first lockdown, the world is still trying to adapt, to sadly, what is now the new normal. Understandably, this pandemic has turned life as we know it completely on its head and we have all had to learn to adapt in many different ways. It is with no doubt that the National Health Service and those working in the medical profession work tirelessly to treat patients who have contracted the virus, and research, understand and learn the effects of this new disease.

However, demand for intensive care and inpatient resources has also risen, and as the virus progresses, medical professionals have been pulled to different directions, often working in fields beyond their expertise. We have seen that general health concerns in non-virus-affected patients have been deemed low priority with primary care services suspended, GP practices closed, non-urgent operations postponed.

The Government’s advice to stay home, save lives and protect the NHS is predicted to have a negative effect down the line as a recent government report suggests there could be up to 200,000 people who will die unnecessarily due to healthcare delays caused by the coronavirus lockdown and restrictions.

Patients with serious illnesses, unrelated to Covid-19 have been neglected during the pandemic and those with life-threatening diseases have gone undetected. Thousands of people in the UK have not received adequate care for emergencies such as heart attacks and strokes, while others have had delayed diagnosis for chronic conditions such as diabetes.

A recent Panorama investigation found 2.5million oncology patients across the UK have been affected by lockdown and restrictions. This includes chemotherapy, radiotherapy and drug trial services, with record waiting times. It was also found that:

  • Over two-million screening invitations have not been sent out
  • GP referrals are down two-thirds from 199,217 (April 2019) to 79,573 (April 2020)
  • Over 200,000 people have forgone urgent referrals to confirm or rule out cancerous tumours
  • Over 20,000 people living with cancer have had potentially life-saving treatment postponed.
  • For those who have been diagnosed with cancer following a screening programme, less than half received treatment within the two-month target.

Even at a General Practice level, The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) found that in-person appointments dropped drastically in the first few weeks of lockdown measures. The situation has not improved, with triage calls becoming the new normal and appointments being held over telephone and video calls. However, without a face-to-face examination, patients are facing the dangers of an incorrect diagnosis.

In response to the rising trends of COVID-19 clinical negligence claims, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) has called for a public debate on whether to grant immunity to NHS staff. The MDU points out how these claims are a troubling drain on NHS resources which would be better spent focused on the COVID-19 recovery. This has raised concerns as completely shielding the NHS staff from clinical negligence claims would strip patients of their entitlement to a proper standard of care as well as curtail their right to redress in the event that they do not receive such care.

However, it will be a matter of waiting to see if the common law, along with the indemnity arrangements, has supplied the NHS with the adequate tools to endure the crisis it finds itself in.

From one health crisis to another – access to healthcare amid Covid-19 and NHS immunity was last modified: March 27th, 2023 by Gabriele Mikstaite