Is it time to admit that the policy of “protecting the NHS” during the Covid pandemic was a dismal failure? They told us to stay at home to avoid the collapse of the health service. Non-Covid treatments were canceled to allow doctors and nurses to focus on the virus, while people stayed away of their own free will. The lockdown imposed enormous costs on society and the economy. But the NHS was not spared. People kept getting sick from diseases other than Covid. And now, unsurprisingly, the health service is falling apart.
Frightening New figures published today by the OECD show the magnitude of the disaster. The NHS closed more services in 2020 than almost any other health service in Europe. In Germany, for example, the number of diagnostic scans for cancer fell by just 0.3% compared to the previous year, but in the UK it fell by 15%. The drop in cancer surgery was even higher, at 25 percent, the biggest drop in any European country except Romania.
According to Macmillan Cancer Support, around 30,000 fewer people in England started cancer treatment between March and August 2020 than in the same period in 2019. Two years on, the UK is counting the tragic cost in additional deaths and a health service struggling to catch up. As the country with one of the worst cancer survival records in Europe before Covid, the UK now lags even further behind.
As we know, it was not just cancer services that fell by the wayside, but almost every other aspect of NHS care. Hip and knee surgeries fell at a higher rate than any other European country, leaving thousands more people in pain and without mobility, operations leading to huge waiting lists two years later. Access to a GP remains limited and almost always delayed, meaning the consequences of late diagnosis and postponed treatment are likely to persist for years to come.
Now that we can see how poorly the UK health service has fared compared to other countries, are politicians and health service leaders prepared to learn lessons from those comparisons? For example, why did the NHS find it necessary to close services that in other countries were largely maintained during the Covid outbreak? Was it because its leaders knew that the service was too fragile to cope with?
All the applause and pan banging was a good way to distract from the problems inherent in a service that simply wasn’t structured to respond to patient demand, and certainly didn’t have the flexibility to deal with a pandemic. Huge sacrifices were being asked of the public to “protect” a service that was already on its knees. Even now, the government remains reluctant to acknowledge that those sacrifices may have been too great, in terms of lives lost to undiagnosed conditions, young lives damaged by school closures, and mental health problems brought on by isolation and anxiety.
It was not just the closure of services that prevented people from being cared for during the pandemic. As government health advisers Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance joined last week, people did not show up for treatment, either out of a sense of altruism or out of fear. The government relied heavily on both sentiments, using emotionally manipulative public advertising campaigns. Terrifying images of people wearing oxygen masks were displayed to scare us into complying with the lockdown rules. And it soon became known that anyone receiving hospital treatment would be denied visits, so the fear of illness was compounded by the fear of dying alone.
Of course, people did not stop getting sick from causes other than covid. However, concerns expressed at the time by cancer specialists and others, pointing out the risks of delaying diagnosis and treatment for cancer and other ailments, were brushed aside. The focus on the pandemic at the expense of other health care needs continued, even as it became clear that the disease was less deadly than feared and deaths from other causes were accelerating.
As this deadly legacy continues to unfold, will the government now admit that our costly attempt to “protect the NHS” was futile? More importantly, will the Prime Minister and Secretary of Health look at these international comparisons and finally accept that the top-down, cash-hungry, crisis-ridden NHS is brokenand we need a completely new model?