Professor Pat Price, a clinical oncologist, said too much treatment was delayed, on the basis of NHS guidelines, in a “very high risk strategy”.
She said: “The guidelines for radiotherapy and Covid-19 advised people to delay and avoid radiotherapy in some circumstances. I think the guidelines were suggesting that we should be not giving [radiotherapy] all the time, at that time, which was in retrospect, not the best advice. I think it was a very high risk strategy.”
As a result, radiotherapy machines were left lying idle, when they could have saved lives, she said.
“We are looking at a huge number of unavoidable deaths and we need to address it because there are patients we can cure and we want to get on with it, but we haven’t been allowed to do it. And this is all too little, too late. We’ve got to get on with it, we need to save lives.”
Peter Johnson, National Clinical Director for Cancer NHS England said: “What we were concerned to do when the virus was increasing very rapidly in the population, was to make sure that we could get the right balance between the risk of catching the virus, and the risk of having people’s cancer get worse.
“And in particular, the risks and benefits of things like chemotherapy where, if the chemotherapy isn’t absolutely crucial but it might be dangerous in terms of increasing your risk of coronavirus […] this wasn’t a kind of attempt to police who should have treatment and who shouldn’t, it was more an attempt to try and help people think very clearly.”
He said it was “impossible to say” whether Covid-19 would result in excess deaths, but said he hoped the NHS would be “back to where we need to be by the end of the year”.
“We’re working as fast as we can to put the services back together again, to restore the capacity and indeed to build more, so that we can deal with the people that have not been diagnosed during the time when the services have been running below 100 per cent.”
Medics said many patients who should have seen their doctors over possible symptoms of cancer did not want to add to pressures on the health service, while others were terrified of catching covid. During the peak of the crisis, urgent referrals fell by 60 per cent.