‘The NHS is there for you’, Health Secretary tells non-Covid patients

Matt Hancock has urged non-coronavirus patients requiring urgent care to seek help immediately, saying “the NHS is there for you”.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the Health Secretary said those who are unwell must not let fear of Covid-19 stop them contacting their GP.

His comments come after research from one of the UK’s leading cancer charities found 2,200 new cases of cancer could be going undetected each week.

Cancer Research UK found the number of urgent referrals by GP have dropped to about 25% of usual levels.

This is down to fewer people going to see their GP and also due to practitioners’ reluctance to send patients to hospital due to the risk of Covid-19 infection, the charity said.

It said screening services have been formally paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and are “de facto” paused in England as no appointments are being made at screening hubs.

Previously, these services were screening around 200,000 people each week for diseases such as bowel, breast cancer and cervical cancer across the UK, picking up an average of 2,250 cases.

But Mr Hancock said the NHS had “not at any point been overwhelmed by coronavirus”.

“Today I want to reinforce the message that non-Covid NHS services are open for patients – the NHS is there for you if I need advice and treatment,” he said.

“I want to address very clearly this message to those who might be vulnerable to heart attacks or stroke, to parents of young children, to pregnant women and to people with concerns that they may have cancer.

Cancer blood test
Cancer blood test

“I want to emphasise that people with non-coronavirus symptoms must still contact their GP.”

He continued: “If you are told to go to hospital, the place you need to be is in hospital.

“The NHS is there for you and can provide the very best care if you need it.”

Cancer Research UK estimated the current low levels of cancer referrals could jeopardise the recovery of thousands of people, as early-stage cancers are significantly easier to treat.

In analysis on its website, it said doctors are concerned early stage cancers are being “parked” for three months or more.

After this point, the chances of curative surgery to remove all of the cancerous tissue – reducing the need for chemo or radiotherapy – become less likely.

Cancer Research UK is now calling on the NHS to develop a plan to dramatically ramp up screening services to deal with the backlog of cases once it is safe to do so.

Professor Charles Swanton, chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, told Radio 4’s Today Programme the Government needs to urgently deliver on its promise to create “Covid-free” hubs in private hospitals.

“In some parts of the country that is definitely happening, patients are having Covid-19 screening 48 hours prior to surgical admission,” he said.

“What is not happening routinely right now – although there are promising signs – is the routine screening of all staff, not just symptomatic but asymptomatic staff, in an effort to create truly coronavirus-free cancer hubs.

We've set up a drive-through site at @WembleyStadium to test frontline staff. This means those who test negative can get back to work quicker.

Watch: volunteer staff from @BootsUK and Professor John Newton explain how the testing process works 🔽 pic.twitter.com/M4MPzTLc63

— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) April 21, 2020

“The truth is, in medicine, total certainty is very difficult but we can minimise risk, and minimising risk requires testing, testing, testing.”

Prof Swanton said the risk of not going to a doctor is much greater than seeking medical help and potentially catching coronavirus.

The current situation is having a particular impact on the diagnosis of lung cancers – the most common cause of cancer death – for fear of spreading Covid-19 to healthcare staff, Cancer Research UK said.

Cancers that require invasive tests such as endoscopy, bronchoscopies and guided biopsies are also going undetected, the charity said.

It further warned urgent surgeries are being delayed in many parts of the country due to a lack of recovery beds with ventilation and no intensive care beds if surgery were to go wrong.

But Mr Hancock said the NHS now has 3,000 spare critical care beds, adding this was “more than three times more than at the start of this crisis.”

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said on Tuesday: “We can’t stress enough how important it is that patients who have concerns about their health, such as potential cancer symptoms, contact their GP practice during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

He said although most practices are conducting consultations remotely via video or telephone, arrangements could be made so patients that need to see a clinician face-to-face can do so safely.