Cancer patients and others with chronic illnesses are being handed a “death sentence” as resources are increasingly diverted to treat coronavirus, sufferers have warned.
Experts fear thousands could die because of delays in treatment and screening as clinicians come under increasing pressure to deal with the deluge of Covid-19 patients.
A reduction in theatre space and fewer available beds in intensive care mean scores are having vital surgery postponed, leaving them confused and worried amid warnings they could become the “hidden victims” of the crisis.
Clinics, appointments and operations have been cancelled in departments from paediatrics to cardiology as well as mental health services.
Beverley Reekes, 59, from Buckinghamshire, said her 66-year-old aunt, who was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma two years ago, had been undergoing gruelling treatment to keep the disease at bay.
She was recently accepted for experimental CAR-T treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Her T cells were successfully harvested around three weeks ago and she was due to have the modified cells replaced next week.
However, the treatment has now been cancelled because of a lack of intensive care beds.
Mrs Reekes told the Telegraph “ Her only option now is palliative care, she has been given a death sentence.
“There is a great injustice here, it’s just absolutely dreadful, people are having their lives taken away. It will have repercussions for many, many years to come
“Time is of the essence for cancer sufferers. They do not have time.”
Similarly, Bradley Pugh has begged for help after his father Glynne’s bowel cancer operation at a Leeds hospital was cancelled.
“This is a man who’s worked really hard all his life, paid his taxes and now his operation had been cancelled,” he said.
“He’s going to be end of life. I don’t know how they can take that away from a man.
“He had been due to have the emergency operation before Christmas but it never happened. Now, we’ve been told it is too risky for him to go into hospital.
“It’s a Catch-22. All we can do is wait for all of this to die down and hope that we can get him in then.”
Claire Elliott, 51, from Worcestershire, received a text from the Royal Marsden hospital, alerting her to the fact she may receive a call cancelling her appointment.
Ms Elliott, who has uterine cancer and is undergoing palliative chemotherapy, said: “I’m just waiting to see if I get a call. I was meant to have a scan next week to see if the chemo is working.
“It’s very difficult to be objective when you’ve got cancer. I’m very upset that NHS England has advised doctors to categorise cancer patients on a scale from one to six.”
Heather Wilson, 55, an oncology nurse and mother-of-three, was diagnosed with a rare cancer in February and was due to undergo specialist surgery to remove her ovaries and part of her small and large intestine this month.
But last week the former nurse from Grimsby, Lincs, was told that the operation had been postponed for at least five months.
Her family are now desperately trying to raise £50,000 on GoFundMe so she can have the procedure done privately.
Her daughter Amie, 30, said: “We feel as though mum’s been given a death sentence.
“The world is dealing with coronavirus and lots of people are dying, but we are heartbroken that mum’s lifesaving surgery has had to be cancelled.
“The irony is my mum has spent the majority of her life helping cancer patients and caring for others, she now needs that from the NHS.”
Tenovus Cancer Care in Wales has warned that hundreds of lives could be lost in Wales alone and called for a “clear plan” for cancer care for the months ahead.
Rhys, chief executive, said: “We understand Covid-19 is presenting our healthcare systems with huge challenges but it is important cancer patients and their needs are not forgotten about during this time.”
Meanwhile, cardiology patients have expressed disappointment that long-awaited appointments have been cancelled or postponed for several months.
Dr Asif Qasim, a consultant cardiologist at Kings College Hospital and Croydon University Hospital, said there had been a notable drop in cardiac hospital admissions, warning that without treatment, for many the consequences could be fatal.
“For a 70 year old with a myocardial infarction (heart attack) the risk without treatment of passing away is higher than the risk of passing away with coronavirus,” he said.
Dr Qasim said there may well be a spike in non-coronavirus-related deaths but that the statistics would be difficult to extrapolate.
“The data for cause of death comes from postmortem studies and I don’t think there will be very many post-mortem studies going on because of the pressure in the system,” he added.
“I think the cause of death might be clouded by the fact that people have coronavirus or pneumonia and have a heart attack – whether that’s at home or elsewhere – but what we may end up seeing is an increase in the number of people presenting in a few months’ time with heart failure.”
One NHS clinician, who did not want to be identified, told the Telegraph: “We have to acknowledge that people will be dying and suffering from other things and those things need to be analysed.
“A death from anything else is no less important. There is a lot of fear about coronavirus, a lot of pressure to get on top of it but we need to take great care not to silence other conditions.”
A source close to the Department of Health told the Sunday Times: “Brutally, we think it’s possible that more people will die from delays to treatment, especially cancer treatment, than the coronavirus.”