Hopes of Post-COVID Recovery of NHS Services 'Unrealistic'

Peter Russell

June 16, 2020

The backlog of surgery in the NHS caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could take years to recover from, the UK's most senior surgeon warned today.

Prof Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, was giving evidence to MPs on Tuesday.

He was joined by leading figures in emergency care and dentistry who gave their views on delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic and beyond.

"I think that dealing with the backlog is not something that's achievable simply in weeks", he told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee. "That, to my mind, is completely unrealistic."

Prof Anderson called for a programme of recovery for surgery which he said would probably mean "4 or 5 years, in order to have a resilient system".

He said: "We have to restore confidence in the public that they can have an elective operation safely with excellent results, as they enjoyed before the COVID crisis."

The Future of Emergency Care

MPs also investigated the future for hospital A&E departments.

Last weekend, Dr Adrian Boyle, a vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM), who also works as an emergency consultant at Addenbrooke's, told the Observer: "Pre-COVID we had crowded emergency departments with people next to each other cheek by jowl. We just cannot go back to that."

Questioned today about the impact of the pandemic on emergency care, Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the RCEM, said change was inevitable.

Jeremy Hunt, the Committee chair, and former Conservative Health Secretary, said: "One of the things you said is, going back… to how we used to operate is not an option – patients will die if we do."

Dr Henderson said she had spoken out because the established system, in which emergency departments had "elastic walls", in which they were never able to say they were full, was no longer tenable.

A new system, she said, should ensure that patients with urgent problems, but not in need of emergency treatment, should be handled by a triage system to assess their needs.

These could include contact through 111, booked appointments into urgent treatment centres, and scheduled access into same day emergency care or 'hot clinics' for specialists, she said.

"We are absolutely dedicated to still being the safety net for patients, but the problem beforehand was that we became the safety net for the system, and we were becoming very, very crowded," she explained to MPs. "We had people in corridors, and the idea that you could have a vulnerable 80-year-old with a hip fracture in a corridor next to someone else who could have COVID is just impossible."

Future of Dentistry

Also giving evidence today, in a meeting convened in Parliament online, was Mick Armstrong, chair of the British Dental Association, who described dentistry as the largely forgotten "Cinderella service" of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Dentistry was not in a great place when we started", he said, and was characterised by "widening inequality and rock bottom morale".

He called the effect on the nation's oral health "catastrophic", with eight million courses of treatment cancelled nationally.

A lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) meant dentists were only able to treat the most urgent cases. Speaking about his own dental practice in West Yorkshire, he told the cross-party Committee: "We would normally have offered 150 appointments in our practice, we're now offering 10 to 15."

Mr Hunt said it was evident that dentistry was "struggling with even an outline of a plan" for the service post-pandemic and promised to include the findings in a forthcoming report.


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