Cancer survival rates will stall over the next decade as treatments are expected to ‘take a hit’ this winter as coronavirus cases rise, MPs were warned.
During the inquiry into severely backlogged cancer services, doctors said at the height of the pandemic, there were too many coronavirus patients for hospitals to keep up with, as beds and staff were diverted to Covid wards.
Several experts are predicting this will happen again this winter, with daily hospitalisations rising from the 100s last summer up to the thousands this past week.
The CEO of RwHealth, an AI healthcare partner which helped the NHS combat shortages, said ‘time is the most valuable resource’ when it comes to helping people recover from cancer.
Orlando Agrippa told Metro.co.uk the best way to ‘avoid wasting time’ this winter is to ‘improve patient flow’.
He said: ‘When Covid hospital admissions suddenly spike this has a knock-on effect on the rest of the system. Staff, resources, and beds have to be allocated to the Covid effort, reducing their availability for other types of care.
‘On top of this, this reallocation takes up a considerable amount of time; staff schedules have to be changed, wards need to be reshuffled, and moving appointment dates entails a huge administrative burden.
‘The extent of demand is not necessarily the question we need to be asking, the important question is how we will rise to meet it.’
Consultant clinical oncologist Professor Pat Price told MPs how cancer units have already been told to prepare around a tenth of their staff to be redeployed to help with coronavirus patients.
The last time this happened, oncologists were needed to ‘clear bedpans’ and take up roles as ‘mortuary assistants’ while hundreds of thousands of people living with cancer waited for treatment, politicians were told.
Indeed, between March 2020 and February 2021, a staggering 369,000 fewer people with suspected cancer were referred to a specialist than is typical, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research
The number of patients who received chemotherapy dropped by 187,000 while there were 15,000 fewer radiotherapy treatments carried out.
As the vaccination programme helped reduce hospitalisations, cancer treatments got ‘back up and running’ to almost pre-pandemic levels. But now the number of people being admitted with coronavirus is going up again.
This is because Brits are living with next to no restrictions, while facing colder winter temperatures and the waning immunity of vulnerable people.
Meanwhile, A&Es have been flooded with patients over the last few weeks.
President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Professor Mike Griffin, said: ‘I am concerned that with the present wave [of Covid], the increased footfall through A&E, the problem with nursing care, beds being closed and not being available… that cancer surgery will once again take a hit in coming weeks over winter.’
The cancer surgeon went on to tell the Committee how the pandemic has already impacted people with cancer long-term.
In the 15 years up to 2019, cancer survival rates have risen by 10%, because of improved treatments and research.
But Professor Griffin is not hopeful this next decade will keep this positive progress up.
‘I can tell you that we are not going to see that in the next 10 years because of what has happened,’ he said.
Cancer Research UK’s Emlyn Samuel told Metro.co.uk: ‘The pandemic has already had a devastating impact on cancer services with tens of thousands of people remaining undiagnosed or waiting for tests and treatment.
‘When we’re already facing the possibility that cancer survival could go backwards, we simply cannot afford any further disruption.’
Chancellor Rishi Sunak earlier announced a £5 billion package for the UK’s biggest health problems, including cancer services.
More specifically, the Office for Life Sciences will be handed £95million to work on cancer, obesity and mental health.
It came after Mr Sunak said the pandemic had shown ‘how important innovative research and development is in delivering new, life-saving treatments’.
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