Cancer patients who decided not to seek treatment during lockdown are now overwhelming emergency units at hospitals across the country, health chiefs have warned.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said A&E units were struggling to cope with the number of people seeking emergency treatment for cancer, hip and knee operations and other serious ailments after deciding not to come forward for help during the pandemic.
It comes after the NHS put some treatments on hold to allow hospitals to cope with an influx of Covid patients and to protect vulnerable cancer patients from infection.
The move led to a huge rise in people missing urgent cancer checks over the past year, while some people have been left waiting two years for vital orthopaedic surgery.
Mr Hopson warned that the “striking” surge in non-Covid patients meant some hospital trusts were already at 97 per cent bed capacity and may struggle to cope with a rise in cases if the full lifting of restrictions goes ahead on June 21.
“We have two problems at the moment,” he said.
“We have a backlog of people on the wards because they have been brought in for a planned or delayed operation.
“But we also have a surge in patients coming into the emergency department. That’s much more difficult to control.
“NHS trust leaders are seeing significantly more patients coming into A&E than they were expecting. And the thesis is that these are people who didn’t seek treatment during lockdown, but have now got to the point where it's so serious, they do have to come forward.”
Mr Hopson said many of these patients were having to spend “multiple days” longer in hospital because their ailment was at a more "complex" and advanced stage.
“That’s the potential issue with unlocking on June 21,” he said.
“If you've got 97 per cent occupancy, and then you suddenly get even a relatively small number of COVID patients, that gets to be really quite complicated.”
We are also seeing higher levels of acuity in patients referred from GPs.
Mr Hopson continued: "For a hospital, there is a major knock on in terms of the number of patients that then have to be admitted, and then also the complexity of the treatment.
"If you leave too long, then it becomes much more complex to treat. In other words, they have to spend longer in hospital.
"We're not saying let's definitely delay June 21. That's for the government to decide. We're saying there are some really finely balanced decisions and judgments."
Last month experts warned that England was at risk of "replacing the Covid crisis with a cancer crisis", after data revealed that more than 300,000 people had missed urgent checks since the start of the pandemic.
In the 12 months ending in March, 304,555 fewer patients were given an urgent referral to hospital by their GP because of suspected cancer.
For breast cancer alone, checks dropped by more than 20,000 in 2020/21. Overall, around 38,800 fewer patients started treatment for cancer – a drop of 12 per cent.
Separate figures have revealed that some people have been left waiting two years for vital hip and knee operations, with a 21,000 pc increase in the number waiting at least a year.
Data shows there are currently 92,165 orthopaedic patients who have been waiting at least 52 weeks, while in January 2020 the number stood at only 436.
In study of ten hospital trusts by Edinburgh and Newcastle universities, 35 per cent of patients awaiting hip replacements were found to have a quality of life “worse than death” according to one international metric.
Nick Clement, a trauma and orthopaedic consultant at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary who led the study, said the scientists had identified patients who had been waiting for two years for vital surgery.
'The problem is, we haven't had access to theatres for about a year,' he told the Daily Mail.
“Normally we'd be able to prioritise that patient (with a poor quality of life) and get them done in a couple of months but now we can't even do that.”