In Depth

Will UK see a post-coronavirus surge in preventable deaths?

A&E numbers plummet as people shun hospitals amid fears of infection with Covid-19

Up to 20% of hospital patients with Covid-19 caught the disease after being admitted for treatment for other conditions, according to NHS England bosses.

The data was revealed to senior doctors and nurses at a national briefing on infection control as a growing number of people put off seeking medical help for other illnesses for fear of contracting the new coronavirus, reports The Guardian.

A senior consultant, who did not want to be named, told the newspaper: “We know from the significant fall in hospital A&E attendances and admissions, many for serious medical conditions, that many people are worried about coming into hospital and catching the virus.

“This shows they are right to be worried - there is real risk.”

How great is the danger?

An investigation by the Daily Mail “examined the role of the NHS in this pandemic and uncovered the real probability that our hospitals have helped spread the deadly virus on their wards”.

Although Covid-19 patients are now housed in segregated wards, “several weeks ago the situation was different”, says the newspaper.

NHS England bosses told medics at the infection control briefing, held by telephone conference in late April, that the rate of hospital-acquired Covid-19 infections was running at 10% to 20%.

However, healthcare sources told The Guardian that those figures were skewed because one trust was known to have poor infection control procedures in place, and that the true rate nationally is currently between 5% and 7%. 

Have people stopped going to hospital?

“I’m really worried there is a very real risk that some children with illnesses such as appendicitis, dehydration or even sepsis are not being brought to see healthcare professionals as quickly as they would be normally,” Sanjay Patel, a consultant in paediatric infectious diseases at Southampton Children’s Hospital, told ITV News.

The warning came as official figures from around 50 hospitals show the number of A&E visits fell from 104,251 visits in the first week of March to 58,447 in the final week of that month - a drop of 43%, reports Metro.

And only 917,000 A&E attendances were recorded in April 2020, down by 57% from 2.1 million in the same month last year, adds Sky News.

In a bid to reverse the decline in people seeking help, the government is planning a major public awareness campaign to stress that the NHS is still there for those who need it.

Welcoming the move, Simon Ray, president of the British Cardiovascular Society, said: “The biggest concern is that it seems there has been a uniform reduction in hospital attendances for heart attacks that has been noted in Italy, Spain and here.

“The magnitude looks the same everywhere: it’s around 40% down in terms of callouts for emergency treatment for heart attacks.”

Will there be a backlog post-coronavirus?

Doctors have warned of a “ticking timebomb” of untreated illness amid low hospital attendances while the coronavirus continues to circulate, reports The Guardian’s health policy editor Denis Campbell.

“The sustained drop in A&E attendances is a significant concern given that many of those who have put off coming to hospitals as long as they possibly could during the first wave will be seeking treatment and could potentially be in worse conditions,” Nick Scriven, former president of the Society for Acute Medicine, told Campbell.

An NHS sourced added that “the fall in emergency admissions means there are loads and loads of people that are staying away from A&E who really ought to come in. That’s a real worry.” 

“They are likely to be people with strokes, heart attacks, sepsis, delirium, severe asthma attacks, broken bones and exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

These people will be among a backlog of patients needing routine treatments and operations that have been delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak. 

The number of people waiting for hospital care in England alone could double to more than eight million within a few months, according to Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust think tank.

What are the other risks?

Illnesses that are most treatable when caught early, such as many cancers, may go undiagnosed as a result of people missing GP and hospital appointments - potentially leading to more deaths.

Cancer experts have said that as a direct result of the coronavirus disruption, an extra 6,270 people in England who are newly diagnosed with cancer could die from the disease over the next 12 months, according to research published in the British Medical Journal.

And this number could rise to an estimated 17,915 additional deaths when people already living with cancer are included.

“There may be people who would have been referred to specialists for assessment of potentially serious conditions, where there is now a delay in offering appointments or indeed clinics may simply have been cancelled,” Tom Dening, professor of dementia research at the University of Nottingham, told Science Focus.

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