One of the country’s leading oncologists has told Sky News cancer patients are missing out on “vital” treatment during the coronavirus outbreak.
The warning comes after the National Health Service said non-urgent operations will have to be put on hold so hospitals can focus on battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Karol Sikora, chief medical officer at Rutherford Health, is making his multi-million pound specialist cancer treatment centres available to NHS patients so their treatment can continue uninterrupted.
He told Sky News: “We hear stories of people in category one and two priority, they’re the highest priority for continuing treatment, not being able to get treatment and this is a tragedy.
“They know that their lives not just in the next few months but over the next few years may be impaired because they’ve missed out on vital treatments.”
The coronavirus emergency is threatening to overwhelm the NHS.
Beth Purvis has just been told her cancer operation has been cancelled. The mother-of-two was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016. The illness later spread to her lungs.
“I had a couple of operations and I was clear for just over a year. Earlier this year, a further tumour popped up in my right lung.
“They were going to operate… but they phoned me to say they’d suspended all surgical procedures. They haven’t given any rescheduling info.”
The NHS says its hospitals need to balance the need for treatment against the risk posed to patients with weakened immune systems.
Ms Purvis accepts that and says she understands the coronavirus emergency must be a priority but knowing her treatment has been suspended is causing her great anxiety.
“I was absolutely devastated, I burst into tears. I was losing hope of ever being clear of cancer again.
“It might be that the operation is no longer viable, depending on how the cancer behaves. But when I think about it logically and rationally, I can see why they’ve made the decision because I can see I would be high risk and they clearly need all the equipment to look after people who are at risk of coronavirus.
“It doesn’t make it easier to cope with emotionally. I feel emotionally drained.”
NHS guidelines say that emergency admissions, cancer treatment and other clinically urgent care should continue unaffected.
But as the virus spreads across the country, oncologists – like other doctors – will be forced to make tough decisions.
Mr Zaed Hamady, consultant surgeon at Southampton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and vice president of The Association for Cancer Surgery, told Sky News the government had allowed NHS Trusts to make agreements with private healthcare providers so some cancer patients could continue their treatment there.
He explained that not all cancer treatment is urgent and some procedures can safely be put on hold but warned there will be delays and cancellations.
“Of course it’s a difficult time for everybody, particularly cancer patients. As cancer doctors, we anticipate that beds will be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
“Most of our patients will need a higher level of care and we anticipate that these beds will be occupied by COVID-19 patients. The effort is coming from many directions, from Trust level, as well as centrally, the royal colleges and the Department of Health.”
The government is turning to the private sector to expand capacity. It needs more beds, ventilators and trained staff.
Rutherford cancer centres already take on NHS patients at their clinics across the country.
Mike Moran, the chief executive officer of Rutherford Health PLC, said there is capacity to take on more.
“This is about making sure that we do what’s right for cancer patients and cancer patients have the opportunity to continue their treatment either with the NHS or with a private organisation.
“We will fall into line exactly the same as private hospitals and the independent healthcare providers network have negotiated that agreement with the government.”