Patients left 'in limbo' by NHS virus response

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The stress and anxiety caused to patients by “poor communication” from NHS bodies in England during the Covid pandemic has been criticised by MPs.

While recognising the huge burden placed on the NHS, their report said cancelled treatments and surgery had left some “in limbo” and others “too scared” to seek medical help.

The report also questioned why weekly testing of NHS staff had not yet begun.

And it called for their mental and physical wellbeing to be supported.

Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, which compiled the report, praised the “heroic contribution” made by front-line NHS staff during the pandemic, which had saved many lives.

‘Compelling case’

But he said the pandemic had “massively impacted normal NHS services”.

And this situation could have been improved with clearer communication to patients and better infection control measures in hospitals.

The report, based on evidence from doctors, nurses, patient groups and NHS leaders, said the case for routine testing for all NHS staff in all parts of the country was “compelling”.

And it should be introduced as soon as possible before winter to help reduce the spread of the virus.

The government and NHS England told the committee they wanted to bring in routine testing of staff but any plans depended on the capacity available.

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The report also called for NHS bosses to take urgent action to tackle the huge backlog of appointments in all areas – from cancer to mental health, elective surgery and dentistry.

Despite assurances from NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens in March that cancer operations and routine care would continue, the MPs found they remained “severely disrupted”.

And this was causing emotional distress to some patients who did not know when appointments might take place, particularly those with life-threatening conditions.

‘Absolute priority’

One NHS patient waiting for cancer treatment told the inquiry she “fell into a hole” where she had been “absolutely in limbo”.

“I did not know and I had no communication about when the chemotherapy might start,” she said.

“I am a single mum with teenagers at home.

“My absolute priority is to stay alive.

“I cannot tell you how difficult that limbo period has been.”

One estimate suggests delays for patients needing screening, tests and treatment for cancer could lead to thousands of avoidable deaths within a year.

And the report set out a to-do list for the government and NHS bosses:

  • Explain why weekly testing of NHS staff has not yet been introduced
  • Address the impact of a backlog of appointments and long waiting times for health services
  • Set out how demand for services will be met
  • Communicate with patients better about any delays to their treatment
  • Ensure a reliable supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) to all NHS staff before winter
  • Tackle racism and promote diversity in the NHS
  • Support the mental and physical wellbeing of staff
  • Make sure dentists are able to continue working

The MPs are worried a lack of dental care during the pandemic has led to a backlog of patients with toothache and infections needing surgery.

Many dentists say they are also struggling financially.

“Dentistry effectively ceased to exist under lockdown,” Eddie Crouch, who chairs the British Dental Association, said.

“And we are still a long way from normal service levels.”

‘Difficult decisions’

Commenting on the report, the Health Foundation said weekly testing of NHS staff – even if possible – was “only one part of the equation”.

“Social distancing, use of PPE and other measures to maintain Covid-free zones within hospitals will be needed alongside this,” assistant director for policy Ruth Thorlby said.

“The reality is that the NHS will be operating with reduced capacity as we approach the winter months.

“And there may need to be difficult decisions made about what services to prioritise.

“The government needs to ensure that both the NHS and social-care services get the funding they need over the next few months, to help reduce waiting times, keep non-Covid services running and make sure that no patients lose out on care.”

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