COVID-19 and the NHS: is our healthcare system failing?

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted people worldwide, with millions suffering from the disease directly and as a result of local lockdown restrictions.


At the time of writing, there have been 7.09 million coronavirus cases in the UK alone and 134,000 COVID-related deaths. The pandemic has been particularly harrowing for our brave and talented healthcare workers, who sacrificed their time, energy and even their health to take care of those most affected by the virus.


But COVID isn’t the only healthcare crisis we’re facing. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also had a knock-on effect on the diagnosis and treatment of other life-threatening illnesses.


A recent audit revealed there had been 330,000 fewer hospital admissions for the most serious conditions since March 2020, such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and mental illness. But although admissions have been paused, these conditions haven’t gone anywhere — least of all for the people living with them.


NHS figures also show there are currently a record 5.1 million people on waiting lists — including nearly 3,000 people who’ve been on there for at least two years — and admission rates remain well below normal pre-pandemic levels. Which begs the question: is our healthcare system failing those who need it most?


The diagnosis crisis


There were an estimated 50,000 missed cancer diagnoses last year, meaning 50,000 fewer people were diagnosed with cancer compared to a similar time frame in the year before. There were also a staggering 285,413 fewer hospital admissions between April 2020 and March 2021 compared to previous years, including for chemotherapy, radiotherapy, scans, consultations and visits to A&E departments. That’s thousands of patients who have gone without vital services. Early intervention is crucial for cancer and many other conditions, so delays in diagnosis and treatment could have devastating consequences.


According to Michelle Mitchell, head of Cancer Research UK, some cancer services show signs of recovery. Still, the UK faces the prospect of cancer survival rates going backwards for the first time in decades should the NHS fail to clear the backlog of treatments and tests. Plus, as the charity announced cuts of £44 million at the end of last year and faces cuts of up to £200 million in the long-term, the cancer research and treatment sectors are likely to experience setbacks.


People living with dementia were also severely impacted by the pandemic. Not only did isolation from professional support and loved ones cause distress, but figures show the number of people assessed for dementia fell to less than half the pre-pandemic level — 10,535 in February 2021 compared to 23,392 in February 2020. Halted clinic services are largely to blame here, as medical professionals on the ground struggled to keep up with demand while managing the influx of COVID cases.


Despite the latest data showing depression rates have doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic began, support for mental illness has also fallen short. GP diagnoses of mental illness have reduced by almost a quarter, suggesting mental health care is in decline despite the growing mental health crisis. This is likely to create added pressure on other health services, as they face the long-term implications of the lack of mental health care resources.



Dangerous delays


The government has increasingly relied on the private sector to support the UK healthcare system. But outsourcing essential services and cutting funding for public health has weakened the NHS’ ability to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. The result? Underpaid and overstretched staff, overcrowded hospitals and delays to vital treatments for those suffering from the most severe illnesses.


At the height of the pandemic, many people were also reluctant to visit hospitals out of fear of catching or spreading the virus. Combined with the scaling back of available services, this left many seriously ill people without medical care. And while more people gained access to healthcare when lockdown lifted, experts have warned that the backlog of appointments will continue to put pressure on strained NHS services.


In areas where NHS services are particularly stretched and underfunded, vulnerable people will continue to bear the brunt of these challenges disproportionately to those with access to better resources. Healthcare is a postcode lottery for many people, and for those who don’t have the luxury of ‘going private’, delays and cuts to NHS services could have real and dangerous consequences.


The virus itself doesn’t discriminate — neither do illnesses like cancer or dementia — so access to adequate healthcare shouldn’t just be reserved for those who can afford to pay for it. And yet, this remains the reality for many people struggling to get the support they need in a post-pandemic world…


SimPal is a cancer charity providing free pre-paid SIM cards and mobile phones (when available) for people living with cancer. Our services are available to people of all ages, from all backgrounds — and applications are non-means-tested to ensure as many people as possible can access our support.