Analysis Politics

The victims of COVID-19 that you don't hear about.

The priority of controlling COVID-19 has come at the expense of potential and current cancer patients, where waiting two more months for an appointment or treatment can make all the difference.

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As of the 7th of September, COVID-19 has amassed a death toll of 41,551 in the UK. In looking at the impact of the virus, there is a tendency to solely focus on the tragic deaths that are directly inflicted by the disease and it is easy to forget that COVID-19 has resulted in the redirecting of resources away from the fight against other diseases.Consequentially, deaths that were avoidable have become unavoidable; emphasising that the cost of COVID-19 is far-reaching and devastating.

Cancer deaths could rise according to estimates by up to more than 3,500 and The Lancet Oncology have highlighted that the nationwide lockdown was to the detriment of the life chances of cancer victims as “cancer screening” was suspended and “routine diagnostic work” had to be deferred. Cancer Research UK have found that the delays in screenings, appointments and operations means that 1,600 cancer cases that would normally be detected each month have gone undetected. The early detection of cancer is crucial for the survival prospects of the patient and Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis and Cancer intelligence, has reiterated that “Cancer can’t wait” and yet COVID-19 is increasing waiting lists and waiting times for vital appointments.

A few months delay may seem insignificant but Professor Turnbull has described this extra wait as
potentially reducing someone’s life expectancy from 40 to 2 years. It shouldn’t be assumed that these deadly delays always occur at the start of the “cancer care pathway”. Instead, there can be “multiple potential delays”; each delay of significance.

Zaria Gorvett, a freelance science journalist, has warned that the “intense focus on a single foe” will result in “harrowing side-effects”. One of these effects is that due to precautions for mitigating COVID-19 the public is being encouraged to undertake GP appointments over the phone. The public’s greater anxiousness surrounding
the attendance of GP appointments in person means that more cases of cancer are going undetected. The Spectator has drawn attention to people’s greater feeling of angst by utilising NHS England sources to reveal that that for the last quarter of 2019/20, in comparison with a year earlier, elective admissions and GP referrals were down by 9.7 and 13.9% respectively. People’s feeling of fear is far from harmless.

Moreover, The Lancet Oncology found that it is predominantly young and middle aged people that will be affected by these delays; disparaging the argument that it is only the elderly that face the virus’ greatest impact. The ability of the NHS to adapt and innovate in response to the greater obstacles to treating diseases shouldn’t be underestimated, as Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Health Service, has already launched an £160 million new initiative that addresses the greater reluctance among patients to attend hospitals.

COVID-19 has therefore put a greater strain on the NHS’s ability to treat other diseases and it is most likely that further innovation will be required to minimise the casualties of further delays and to provide greater reassurance to those that continue to fear attending their local GP surgery.

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