So many health professionals and patients have tested positive for the coronavirus in England that the situation has made it hard to address a backlog of more than six million people awaiting hospital treatment for other conditions, health leaders said on Thursday.
The issue of treatment backlogs is politically sensitive in Britain, where the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to reduce them in the National Health Service.
The government has firmly backed its decision in February to lift coronavirus restrictions earlier than most other developed countries did. Britain recently stopped providing free coronavirus testing on demand.
As the restrictions were lifted, though, the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA. 2 was spreading through the country, and reports of new cases soared again. Britain’s Office of National Statistics estimated that almost 4.4 million people in England and Wales were infected in a single week in late March, and the percentage of test results that were coming back positive reached record highs.
The daily case counts have fallen from their March peaks, but even so, many scheduled hospital procedures are being canceled at the last minute because the patient or a staff member has tested positive, disrupting efforts to clear the hospital backlog, according to Dr. Tim Mitchell, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association, said the government was “burying its head in the sand” over the problem.
“Unless this government acts now to bring down infection rates and address the staffing crisis with realistic proposals, the risk of harm to patients will only increase,” he said in a statement.
Overall, backlogs for health services at hospitals have increased this year, though some waiting lists have shortened, according to figures released on Thursday by the National Health Service.
During the winter, hospitals in England admitted 170,000 patients with Covid, and the service lost almost four million days of work because of Covid-related absences among its staff.
“That has meant more patients with Covid-19 in hospital beds, more staff off work with Covid-19 and more delayed discharges than anyone was expecting,” Chris Hopson, chief executive of N.H.S. Providers, an organization representing health care providers working under the National Health Service, said in a statement on Thursday. He said the figures showed “how much pressure the service is under.”
The government has promised to shorten wait times for elective treatment in hospitals to less than two years by July 2022 and less than one year by March 2025. The health service said on Thursday that it had made progress on those goals despite a record number of emergency calls over the winter.
The number of patients who had been waiting a year or longer for treatment fell by 12,000 people in February, to just under 300,000, and the number who had waited two years or more fell by more than 500, to 23,281, the service said.