Cancer surgery services are to run at only 60 per cent capacity in Scotland for at least another two years thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, according to an SNP government report published that raised “huge concern” about substandard treatment.
The Scottish Government’s updated framework for recovery of cancer surgery said new policies are being developed to ensure fair access to the “limited surgical resource” as the health service recovers from the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Health boards should set up clinical prioritisation groups (CPGs) to ensure non-essential procedures do not restart on an ad-hoc basis, it said.
But it warned that current estimates were that surgery services will operate in most board areas “at around 60 per cent of pre-Covid levels for the next 24 months, and perhaps longer if there are further surges” in the virus.
The report also highlighted that around 2,000 Scots suspected to have cancer are waiting for scans, endoscopy and screening after being referred by their GPs.
There is a backlog of 500 patients with the disease waiting for treatment, thanks to the pandemic. On March 17, the NHS was placed under emergency measures.
Boards were asked to suspend all non-urgent treatment to clear wards and operating lists of patients in expectation of an influx of Covid-19 cases.
The Scottish Government has published a recovery plan prioritising cancer services but Cancer Research UK said the latest report showing the virus will continue to have a “significant impact.”
Marion O’Neill, of the charity, said: “For some people, surgery can be a cure. Patients can receive other treatments, such as radiotherapy, in some cases.
“But this won’t always be possible so it’s extremely worrying that it’s anticipated that surgical services will operate on such a profoundly reduced basis.”
Janice Preston, Macmillan Cancer Support’s head of services in Scotland, said: “We need to look at innovative solutions as quickly as possible, such as the private sector and using the Louisa Jordan (temporary hospital).
“Now is the time for radical thinking, otherwise the backlog is going to continue to grow and grow.”
The new report said patients should be classified in five groups, ranging from “priority level one” cases, where surgery is needed within 72 hours, to “priority level four”, where surgery can be safely scheduled after 12 weeks.
Ministers recommend that boards “implement local governance policies to ensure fair and reasonable access to a limited surgery resource in terms of both hospital beds” and theatre capacity in Covid-free wards.
Speaking at her daily briefing Nicola Sturgeon said urgent treatments should still be going ahead and returning services to normal is a “priority.”
Fiona McQueen, the chief nursing officer, said the health service is looking into making use of facilities such as the NHS Louisa Jordan emergency hospital or remote consultations.
She said: “Not everything is immediate and urgent but certainly we will be expecting to see our cancer patients being treated and we are doing everything we possibly can.”