NHS is 'over-prioritising Covid' costing lives, warns cancer expert

THE NHS is prioritising Covid-19 patients at the expense of cancer patients, a top expert has warned. 

Professor Clare Turnbull, a London-based clinician and professor of cancer genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, said there has been “collateral consequence” in other non-Covid illnesses.

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Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Turnbull said: “'I think unfortunately there has been a lot of collateral consequence in other areas of healthcare on account of the Covid-19 crisis.

"And although delaying hip replacements or cataract surgery means people are suffering unpleasant symptoms longer, delaying cancer surgery can quite simply be the difference between life and death.”

She described how a six-year-old child with cancer could be eligible for treatment that would cure their disease and give them a  “full and normal life” to the age of 80.

But if they were to wait for their surgery, the tumour may return in years, or even months, and be terminal.

“Quite simply put, the more patients we delay, the longer we delay them, the more likely they will move from that first category to that second category,” she admitted.

Prof Turnbull was asked if the NHS was “over-prioritising” Covid-19 patients at the expense of cancer care, and whether facilities for only cancer patients should be set up.

She replied: “A lot of us in the cancer community would argue for that. In many countries in Europe their cancer pathways have suffered much less because they have dedicated cancer facilities for diagnostics and treatment.”


It comes after damning figures laid bare the extent to which cancer care is being delayed.

Some hospitals are treating fewer than half the cancer patients they normally would as a result of a huge post-Christmas surge in coronavirus patients.

A leaked document called the NHS England cancer resilience plan, seen by the Sunday Telegraph, says London needs to treat more than 500 cancer patients a week to remain on top of demand.

But only 122 cancer cases were treated in London’s NHS hospitals this week, while 101 were seen in private hospitals, according to the paper, a shortfall of 277.

Figures also show there were almost 4,000 cancer patients across the capital waiting beyond the target time of 62 days for their first treatment, the paper said.

One senior NHS trust source told The Independent: “My concern is that this becomes death by default."

The Telegraph said it had analysed data that showed there were around 10,000 fewer non-Covid patients being treated at NHS hospitals in England last week than the middle of last month – some of which would be cancer.

In mid-December the non-Covid to Covid patient ratio was 5.8 to 1. But this has drastically changed to 2.8 to 1, as coronavirus patients overwhelm hospital beds.

None of the figures were disputed by NHS England.

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The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said some NHS trusts have had to cancer surgeries and treatment as they did in the spring wave. 

King's College Hospital Trust, in London, is one of those.

Last week it cancelled all "Priority 2" operations – those doctors judge need to be carried out within 28 days.

"Delays further than that could have a negative impact on that person's chance of survival," Kruti Shrotri at Cancer Research UK told the BBC. 

It is feared other hospitals in the country may face more difficult decisions given the state the NHS is currently in.

There are more Covid patients in NHS hospitals now than at any part of the pandemic, including 40 per cent higher than in the darkest days of the spring wave.

The Government dashboard reveals there are 33,000 Covid patients in UK hospitals compared with 21,700 in April.


A top England surgeon warned last week that if coronavirus cases are not curbed, the NHS will be unable to treat heart attacks, cancer and emergencies.

Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, told Times Radio: “The less-priority operations have already stopped in many places – hips, knees, ENT (ear nose and throat) procedures.

“We’re now concerned about operations like cancer surgeries being cancelled or postponed because there just isn’t the capacity to be able to manage them.”

Responding to the shocking figures on cancer care in the capital, Vin Diwakar, medical director for the NHS in London, said people in the health service are “working round the clock” to increase capacity.

He warned Londoners: "We are depending on you. Stay at home, do everything possible to reduce the transmission of the virus, and help us save lives.”​​

Mr Hopson said NHS trusts are “doing everything” they can to ensure non-Covid emergency and cancer care continues.

He said the delaying of operations was a “temporary emergency response to a temporary emergency problem”.

“Every trust will leave no stone unturned to ensure all these operations are completed on time, including getting support from neighbouring trusts and using private sector capacity”, he said.

“Any cases that have to be temporarily delayed for a few days will obviously be rebooked for as quickly as possible.”

Macmillan Cancer Support have a free helpline (0808 808 00 00) available seven days a week.

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