UK COVID-19 Update: Steep Fall in Cancer Referrals in England

Peter Russell

July 09, 2020

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Cancer Referrals Plummet

Cancer Research UK said it was concerned by new figures showing that urgent referrals for cancer in May were 47% lower than in the same month the previous year. Chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said: "This is yet more worrying evidence of the impact COVID-19 has had on cancer patients and services.

"It's vital that the NHS and Government work together – and that the much needed investment is made – to ensure the health service has the staff and equipment it needs to clear the backlog, and to ensure staff can care for their patients in 'COVID-protected' environments.

"Above all, people should really feel reassured that it's safe to use our health services again."

The May figure was a slight improvement on that for April, which saw a 60% fall in urgent referrals compared to April 2019.

However, Sara Bainbridge, head of policy and influence at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "In May, when the pandemic had passed its 'peak', 9000 fewer people started treatment for cancer than the same time last year. In addition, a colossal 94,000 fewer people saw a specialist for suspected cancer following an urgent GP referral, than during the same period last year."

Further data from NHS England for diagnostic test activity and waiting times showed the continuing impact of COVID-19.

It found that the total number of patients in England waiting six weeks or more from referral for one of 15 key diagnostic tests at the end of May 2020 was 571,500. That was 58.5% of the total number of patients waiting at the end of the month.

Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said: "The reality is that the NHS will not be able to restart all of its services at once and difficult decisions will have to be made to prioritise those in most urgent need of care. There now needs to be an honest conversation with the public that this will mean longer waiting times for treatment for less serious conditions."

Pools and Sports Facilities Set to Reopen

Outdoor swimming pools in England will be allowed to reopen from 11th July, the Government announced this evening.

It said indoor gyms, swimming pools, and sports facilities could reopen from 25th July.

Guidance, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, includes advice for providers of pool, gym, and leisure facilities on cleaning, social distancing, and protection for staff to help venues get back up and running safely.

Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, said: "The reopening of gyms is the news millions across the country have been waiting for with many people desperate to jump on a spinning bike or dive into a pool."

Test and Trace: Latest

Latest official data for NHS Test and Trace was released today.

It showed that between 25th June and 1st July, 303,409 new people were tested for Coronavirus (COVID-19) under Pillars 1 and 2 in England, and 3903 new people tested positive for COVID-19.

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, 1,639,722 new people had been tested for COVID-19 under pillars 1 and 2 in England, and 30,797 new people had tested positive, since the system went live on 28th May.

The figures showed that 31,421 people had their case transferred to the contact tracing system, of whom 75.7% were reached.

COVID-19 Test Data 'Chaos': Report

Data collection for COVID-19 testing "was carried out in such a chaotic manner" that it might be impossible to tell how many people have been tested for coronavirus, according to Sky News.

It said after the Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced he wanted to see 100,000 tests a day, collection of statistics was "so primitive that they were being compiled with pen and paper".

Last month, Sir David Norgrove, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to Mr Hancock to warn that testing figures "are still far from complete and comprehensible". He said: "The way the data are analysed and presented currently gives them limited value for the first purpose. The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding."

BMA Calls for Urgent NHS Funding

The British Medical Association (BMA) was underwhelmed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's summer statement on Wednesday which it said contained no new commitment to significant health investment.

It said the lack of any extra spending pledge was "astonishing" following previous Government promises to give the NHS "whatever it needs".

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: "Earlier this year, the NHS was given a cash injection to help it cope with the pandemic – but we cannot afford for this to be a one-off sticking plaster.

"Doctors and their colleagues have spent the last four months giving their all, often putting their own health at risk, battling this virus on the frontline.

"Even before this crisis, a decade of underinvestment had resulted in record waits for care, a severely depleted medical workforce and services barely able to cope. If the NHS is to not only meet the needs of patients who have had care suspended during the pandemic but also to be ready for a possible second wave, the Government must bring forward significant further investment as a matter of urgency."

London Hospital Closed to Emergencies After COVID-19 Outbreak

Hillingdon Hospital in West London remained closed to all emergency admissions following an outbreak of COVID-19 among its staff.

The closure took place at 8pm on Tuesday evening.

A statement yesterday from Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: "Over the last few days a small number of our staff have unfortunately tested positive for coronavirus, and in line with the latest guidance, other staff they have been in contact with have therefore been asked to isolate until we are sure they are not also infected."

A report in The Guardian suggested that the hospital's chief executive, Sarah Tedford, had blamed the outbreak on "irresponsible" staff flouting infection control rules by not wearing a mask while at work.

Richard Tedder, visiting professor in medical virology at Imperial College London, commented: "It is only in the last few weeks that it has become mandatory practice for healthcare professionals to wear masks in all areas of the hospital.

"The pressure under which staff work in the face of seriously ill patients and the burden of infection within the population as a whole is a massive one which requires sympathy and support from colleagues across the whole realm of the hospital complex. 

"In many ways it must be difficult to provide the support and comfort to one’s colleagues at arm's length and from behind a mask, and as a result the unwitting introduction from the community at large into a workforce of the density which is represented by a busy hospital is likely to have previously unforeseen consequences but ones which are recognised both in Hillingdon and in other similar hospitals."

Scotland To Lift Some Lockdown Restrictions

Lockdown restrictions in Scotland will be further eased on Friday.

Up to three households will be able to meet indoors for the first time – up to a maximum of eight people, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced.

Meanwhile, up to five different households to a maximum of 15 people will be able to meet outdoors from Friday.

The rules mean that a household can meet up to four other households each day in total.

Mandatory face coverings will be required in shops.

While physical distancing of two metres remains the law in Scotland, exceptions for public transport and shops will be allowed once appropriate mitigations are in place.

The Chancellor's Eating Out Discount Branded 'An Unhealthy Option'

Dietitians expressed reservations about a Government initiative to help kickstart the hospitality industry by offering discounts

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday an 'Eat Out to Help Out' discount for diners during August.

Meals eaten at any participating business, Monday to Wednesday, would be half price up to a maximum discount of £10 per head for everyone, including children.

Dr Duane Mellor, dietitian and senior lecturer at Aston Medical School, said: "It is a shame that the 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme that the Chancellor announced does not appear to give much consideration to health and sustainability.

"A more focused approach, rather than one that includes all types of food and non-alcoholic drinks, could have potentially reinvigorated the High Street as well as encouraged healthier and more environmentally focused consumption."

Amelia Lake, professor in public health nutrition at Teesside University, told the Science Media Centre, "We know that food consumed outside of the home is generally less healthy, higher in fat, salt, and sugar."

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