The NHS could take up to two years to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, and cope with the number of patients it was dealing with before it, medics have warned.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) said it was important to be honest with patients about just how long it could take for things to return to normal. 

NHS figures show the numbers of patients waiting a year or more for operations has increased by ten-fold in the last year. 

Many procedures are now taking far longer than they used to, because of extra time on infection control, deployment of Personal Protective Equipment.

Meanwhile the number of beds on wards has been reduced, in order to allow social distancing. 

The RCP surveyed 19 medical specialties to ask medics when they expected their services to return to full capacity. 

Seventy per cent of those polled thought it would take at least 12 months.

Even then, doctors said the “new normal” would only mean waiting list backlogs were being managed, rather than eliminated, and services being stabilized. 

And in some specialities – including respiratory medicine, which has been hardest hit by Covid-19 – most medics thought it would take two years for services to recover.

Doctors working in cardiology said they expected it to take 18 to 21 months for their departments to return to “an even keel”. Around one in 10 of those discharged from hospitals in England after treatment for Covid-19 has been left with acute heart injury. 

Non-emergency operations were stopped for three months in mid-March, and have only just resumed.  On Monday orthopaedic surgeons warned that year-long waits for hip and knee operations could become the norm.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians said that in the short-term, medics would have to keep prioritising patients, in order to work within the reduced capacity available.

He said: “We also need to be honest with patients that things will take longer and that we are working as hard as possible to restore services to pre-pandemic levels.

“The public can also play a critical role by following social distancing guidance which will keep Covid-19 infection rates down.”

Meanwhile a survey of 158 NHS trust chairman and chief executives found that more than half were reporting increasing numbers of patients whose health conditions had become urgent by the time they sought help. 

The polling by NHS Providers, commissioned by the House of Commons health and social care select committee, follows warnings that this year could see an extra 18,000 deaths from cancer because of late diagnosis. 

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “The NHS faces a really difficult problem. Some trusts will be losing as much as 40 per cent of their capacity for as long as Covid-19 is with us. There are also many more patients to now treat.” 

“Trust leaders are as frustrated as patients and service users that they can’t go faster. But it’s not just a case of flicking the light switch back on. Covid-19 brings a whole new set of demands and the overwhelming priority must be to provide safe care.”

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