Leading surgeon warns of ‘disastrous backlog’ for cancer and heart patients as Covid crisis hits NHS


ovid pressures on the NHS need to be reversed within six weeks or the nation faces a disastrous backlog in untreated cancer patients, a top surgeon warned today.

Hospitals across London are starting to postpone cancer operations, adding to the backlog that resulted from a halt to elective procedures during the first lockdown.

Planned heart surgery has also been paused across the capital, the Standard has been told, though urgent and emergency cardiac surgery is continuing at St Bartholomew’s hospital. It came as:

  • NHS England confirmed it was moving ahead with plans to reopen London’s Nightingale hospital.
  • Thousands of London NHS staff have received the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Hospitals across London were taking decisions trust-by-trust on whether to postpone non-Covid treatments.

The surgeon, speaking anonymously to the Standard due to a NHS England media crackdown, said many cancer patients faced worse outcomes if normal oncology services were not restarted within six weeks. Many theatre staff have been redeployed to intensive care units, meaning cancer surgery has been reduced.

“Next week we are going to have to do less work,” the surgeon said. “I get more worried the longer this goes on.”

Cancer patients are being prioritised, with “dire emergencies” — such as people suffering bleeds and other life-threatening problems — continuing to undergo surgery. But people with “less urgent” cancers are already waiting longer than normal. However, doctors have a better understanding of which cancers require quicker intervention — and which patients are more likely to do badly if forced to wait. Discussions are under way with private hospitals to allow NHS surgery to take place.

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The suspension of planned cardiac surgery is likely to affect people awaiting a bypass for coronary artery disease, those requiring the replacement of a heart valve, people with congenital heart disease and those suffering complications from previous heart surgery, including heart transplants. 

It could also limit access to procedures such as stents to open blocked coronary arteries, ablation procedures to correct irregular heart rhythms, and the fitting of pacemakers to treat irregular heart rhythms and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) to stop life-threatening cardiac arrests, according to the British Heart Foundation. 

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the BHF, said: “The longer people wait, the greater the risk that people could become more unwell or die before they receive the care they need.

“It is vital that so-called ‘routine’ heart surgery is reinstated as soon as possible.”

NHS England denied that cardiac surgery had been formally suspended but said that hospitals could refer urgent cases to St Bartholomew’s as part of a “mutual aid” arrangement.

The Nightingale hospital, at ExCeL conference centre, is set to reopen next week – but to treat recuperating patients not those dying from covid.

A NHS London spokeswoman said: “We are working hard to prepare NHS Nightingale Hospital London to take patients if necessary. “It will provide recovery for patients after an emergency hospital stay, freeing up other beds in hospital for Covid patients.”

Other London hospitals rushing to inoculate staff include the Royal Free, the Royal London, Whipps Cross and the Homerton. 


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