A London-based consultant, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, suggests that a desire to cut costs could be to blame. “Most of us are completely frustrated by not being able to deal with people face to face,” she says. “It’s not us who are refusing to do that. What we’re worried about is that managers and professional bodies see an opportunity to essentially save a lot of money by making [online appointments] the new face of medicine.
“Most of us who practise medicine want to be with people, and that’s why we went into it. I think it’s really an issue that needs to be aired: who is actually asking patients and doctors if this is how they want life to be? There seems to be very little humanity in the whole thing. You can’t safely practise medicine like this.”
Multiple harrowing stories back this up. One woman, a 60-year-old retired doctor living in Wales, recounts how her mother was suddenly ejected from hospital at the start of the crisis while suffering from terminal cancer: “They put her in a hospital tracksuit and sent her home with some painkillers and no support. Four days earlier she’d been told all her needs would be assessed before she was discharged. That didn’t happen.”
Sherwin Hall, a 27-year-old father of two, was diagnosed with a rare but aggressive form of cancer in June after begging doctors for a CT scan at the beginning of lockdown. He believes his diagnosis was delayed by the coronavirus crisis.
“If I was scanned the first time I went to hospital I would be 60 or 70 per cent ready to watch my son grow up and ready to live life. It would have been a primary tumour, they could have cut it out and given me chemotherapy and I’d have had a very good chance of surviving.
“I’m on chemotherapy now. There’s a 15 per cent chance that it works. If it doesn’t, then I’ve got three months to live. Every day I think ‘why didn’t they give me a scan?’ It would have taken two seconds to save my life.”
An NHS England spokesperson said: “Despite responding rapidly to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to ensure over 100,000 patients could receive hospital care, NHS staff also provided more than five million urgent tests, checks and treatments in a safe way during the peak of the virus, with over 65,000 people starting cancer therapy.
“NHS services continue to be available for those who need it and staff continue to work hard to bring back as many non-urgent tests and treatments as possible, but the reality is that while Covid-19 still poses a threat – particularly to those whose immune systems are compromised – extra care will need to be taken for the safety of individuals themselves, other patients and our staff.”
Deborah James, a co-presenter of the You, Me and the Big C podcast who was diagnosed with bowel cancer at 35, says: “People feel pushed aside, like cancer has been given a massive backseat. Everyone recognises Covid is a problem but we can’t forget more people are dying every day now of cancer than of Covid.”
As the GP observes, it is “painfully obvious” how dire the situation has become. When the tragic numbers are finally totted up, excess deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke could easily outstrip those from Covid-19, thanks to a healthcare system that has thrown everything at the virus – but left everyone else in the cold.