Private hospitals taken over by the NHS to fight coronavirus at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to the taxpayer remain almost completely empty despite a huge backlog of patients needing cancer treatment and elective surgery, medics say.
More than 8,000 private beds in England were hastily bought up by ministers in March in anticipation of NHS hospitals being overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases.
But the health service’s intensive care wards were not overrun at the peak of the pandemic and the majority of the private beds went unused.
Up to a fifth of routine operations on the NHS were also postponed to make way for a surge in virus patients, resulting in millions of delayed treatments every month.
The private hospitals are now meant to be serving as ‘Covid-free hubs’ to get healthcare back up and running for vulnerable people, including cancer patients.
But a senior consultant said today that ‘very few’ of these patients were being referred to the private hospitals, leaving them almost completely empty.
It has meant ‘tens of thousands’ of cancer patients are missing out on potentially lifesaving treatment every month.
Private hospitals taken over by NHS at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to fight the coronavirus pandemic are ‘sinfully empty’, claim medics. Pictured: The ICU wards at the hastily built Nightingale Hospital have barely been used throughout the crisis
Professor Karol Sikora (pictured) is consultant oncologist and professor of medicine, University of Buckingham Medical School
Karol Sikora, a consultant oncologist and professor of medicine at the University of Buckingham Medical School, told MailOnline: ‘Once it became clear the private beds would not be needed for Covid patients, the idea was to use private hospitals as Covid-free zones. But that has only partly materialised.
‘Because the NHS is not doing surgeries, thousands of cancers are going undiagnosed.’
‘Surgery is needed in some cases to diagnose someone with the disease and get them started on their treatment.
‘Because the patients are not being diagnosed, they are not coming through the system.
‘We know there should be 30,000 new cancer patients every month – but this month there have been less than 5,000 that have come for treatment.
‘It’s not that there are less people with cancer, it’s that they are not being diagnosed because of a bottleneck in the NHS.
Two months on, and still waiting for vital surgery
A father with terminal cancer is still waiting for surgery two months after it was cancelled the day before it was due to take place.
Glynne Pugh, 68, has bowel cancer and was given 12 months to live last November. He was due to have an operation at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds on March 23.
His family were told the postponement was due to the closure of the operating theatre for coronavirus training.
Mr Pugh’s son Bradley, 32, said at the time: ‘It was just devastating – mum and dad were completely in shock and obviously tearful. As a family we understand how much pressure the NHS is under, but we feel that, as dad’s operation is life or death, the cancer might spread. There is only about six months left, that’s the problem.’
Glynne Pugh, 68, pictured above with his son Brad, has bowel cancer and was given 12 months to live last November. He was due to have an operation at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds on March 23
His father has survived cancer twice before and his family insist he is strong enough to endure treatment again, but the operation remains vital.
‘There was hope there for the whole family, which was everyone was holding out for,’ said Bradley, of Stroud, Gloucestershire.
‘What the NHS must be going through is absolutely terrible. They are all doing a fantastic job, but we still feel dad deserves the operation because he is our hero. This is a man who has worked extremely hard all his life.’
Mr Pugh worked as an engineer from the age of 18.
‘The whole thing has set us back a year, no other country has struggled this much to open healthcare back up. I don’t know what’s behind the bottleneck, maybe it’s a staffing issue.’
Senior clinicians at private hospitals claim hundreds of the country’s best doctors have been left ‘twiddling their thumbs’ during the outbreak – putting people’s health at risk from other illnesses and postponed operations.
It has left private patients with no option but to join huge NHS waiting lists triggered by the pandemic.
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust think-tank, said hospitals have only been able to carry out around ’15 to 20 per cent’ of surgeries, meaning up to 1.3million patients are missing out every month.
In one case, a 78-year-old woman with breast cancer was denied surgery at a private clinic by the local NHS manager even though the hospital was empty, according to The Times. The patient was instead referred back to the NHS.
Cancer Research says almost 2.5million patients have missed out on vital cancer tests and treatment due to shocking backlogs during the crisis.
Medical bodies last night said the biggest threat to the nation’s health was the lack of healthcare rather than coronavirus itself.
Richard Packard, chairman of the Federation of Independent Practitioner Organisations, which represents private consultants, told The Times: ‘The money being poured into the private sector is a total waste.
‘The NHS cannot afford to subsidise private hospitals and nor should it have to. Likewise, the UK simply cannot afford to allow medical and surgical capacity to sit idle whilst pathology and waiting lists build and patients suffer.’
One London-based private consultant orthopaedic surgeon said last month there was a ‘sinful’ and ‘shocking’ mass of empty private hospitals and empty beds.
‘Most of them are gathering dust, with a whole load of doctors twiddling their thumbs. And it’s costing the NHS millions.’
The surgeon said only ’emergency’ and ‘time-critical’ operations were being allowed at his hospital.
A second medic said his hospital was ‘fairly empty and under used’ while another said he was ‘pretty bored’. ‘I am unsure if the hospitals are being used in the most efficient way,’ he admitted.
A fourth doctor said private hospitals in north London were ‘largely empty’ despite repeated offers to help out with patients from overrun NHS wards.
In March it appeared the NHS might need every ventilator and intensive care bed, with some scientists warning that tens of thousands would be dying every day.
‘It was the right thing to do at the time as we had to look at what was happening in Italy and Spain and react accordingly,’ said one medic.
Another doctor added: ‘Preparing for an epidemic is a very difficult balance. If you get it right, it’s by pure luck.’
However, he warned that more people could end up dying early of illnesses like cancer and heart disease: ‘At what point does the cost of this ‘medical lockdown’ to people’s health outweigh the benefits?’
I’m at risk after crucial drugs had to be stopped
For three years Joanna Addis has received cutting-edge drugs to keep her breast cancer from growing.
But in April the 54-year-old was told her treatment was to be paused for three months.
Her treatment – a combination of the drugs palbociclib and letrozole – was thought to be too dangerous to take during the pandemic because it depresses the immune system.
Fears: Joanna Addis lives with her husband Volky in Stockport
Mrs Addis, who lives in Stockport with husband Volky, had been taking the treatment since 2017 after surgery failed to control her cancer.
‘I try not to think about what will happen over the next two months, but I do worry about what my scan in June will show,’ she said. ‘If my disease was to progress, I’d feel like I had wasted a treatment option and the time it could have given me.
‘Striking off such a valuable treatment not because of my cancer becoming unresponsive, but because of the risk of the virus, doesn’t seem fair. I ended up in hospital soon after I came off palbociclib as pain in my right hip became so severe that I couldn’t walk, which felt like too much of a coincidence at the time.
‘Thankfully, no cancer progression was found, but I do really worry what may happen if I need to stay off the treatment for even longer.
‘Everything just feels so out of my control at the moment, which is really difficult.’
Some private hospitals are reportedly in talks to extend their NHS contracts that put them under public control – as a safety net in case of a resurgence in Covid admissions.
One consultant told The Times this arrangement suited private hospitals because it meant the taxpayer was covering the salaries of senior staff.
Private hospitals’ ability to make profit will be severely hampered when these deals end.
Social distancing measures, a lack of PPE and new cleaning regimes will mean they will have to operate at greatly reduced capacity.
Under new Government guidance, any patient who goes to hospital for an operation must isolate at home for two weeks beforehand and take tests upon arrival.
NHS England was unable to offer any data on how many private beds were being used but a spokesman said ‘tens of thousands of patients’ had been treated.
They added: ‘While the priority for private hospital beds was to provide surge capacity for coronavirus patients should it have been needed, meaning it is a mark of success that some of this has not been needed, with numbers of coronavirus inpatients falling, private hospitals are now increasingly playing their part in bringing NHS services back safely.’
Meanwhile, Cancer Research says 2.1million patients are still awaiting crucial screening for breast, cervical and bowel cancer due to the backlog in the NHS.
Another 290,000 have missed out on urgent referrals to confirm or rule out tumours, and at least 21,600 patients have had lifesaving surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy postponed.
Doctors say most private hospitals are still completely empty, others have been carrying out only one operation per day.
Some private hospitals are now being used as ‘Covid-free’ hubs to treat cancer patients and conduct other surgeries on patients vulnerable to the virus.
But the Federation of Independent Practitioner Organisations branded this a ‘gross under-utilisation’ of capacity.
Even before the virus took off in the UK in March, cancer waiting times were at their worst since records began in 2010 with understaffed hospitals struggling to cope.
This means that patients who have already waited months for a cancer diagnosis or treatment will face a ‘bottleneck’ in accessing care.
The NHS now faces the shocking backlog of cases as it tries to return to normal – and also cope with new victims of the disease.
Hospitals will be further constrained by strict infection control measures that mean only limited numbers can have CT or MRI scans each day as machines will have to be thoroughly cleaned. Chemotherapy will also be restricted to a few patients at a time due to social-distancing rules.
The numbers awaiting cancer treatment are extremely worrying, according to Sarah Woolnough, policy chief at Cancer Research UK.
‘UNDERUSED’ NIGHTINGALE MAY STAY OPEN FOR 18 MONTHS
More patients could soon be treated at the NHS Nightingale Hospital amid frustration from medics that it is being ‘underused’.
The huge 3,600-bed field hospital, which was built in just nine days at London’s ExCel Centre, has admitted only 40 coronavirus patients.
But in a leaked letter, NHS boss Sir David Sloman said the number of intensive care beds in use would be increased to 84 ‘in the next few weeks’, plus 14 beds for patients who are recovering from the Covid-19 virus.
The hospital may remain open for 18 months to ease pressure on NHS hospitals.
She added: ‘We’re going to have this huge backlog to clear. It’s a massive backlog of services and treatment to deliver. It’s absolutely huge, it’s thousands and thousands and thousands.’
Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research’s chief clinician, said: ‘My colleagues and I have seen the devastating impact of this pandemic on both patients and NHS staff. Delays to diagnosis and treatment could mean that some cancers will become inoperable.’
The longer a patient waits to be diagnosed and treated for cancer, the greater the likelihood their tumours will spread to other tissues and organs to the extent they become inoperable.
Cancer Research’s data shows that across the UK, 12,800 patients have missed out on surgery, 6,000 on chemotherapy and another 2,800 on radiotherapy.
The figures for surgery are particularly worrying because these procedures would otherwise remove tumours that may now have grown or spread.
Many hospitals have delayed chemotherapy, radiotherapy or operations to remove tumours to enable them to cope with a surge in virus cases, as well as to cut cancer patients’ risk of becoming infected when they come in.
At the same time, patients with worrying symptoms, including lumps on their breasts or frequent urination, which could be a sign of prostate cancer, have been reluctant to make appointments with GPs.
Some family doctors have not been sending patients to hospital for certain diagnostic tests as they have also been halted, particularly procedures to detect bowel cancer.
Routine screening for breast, cervical and bowel cancer has been suspended in most areas over the past two months despite being crucial for detecting early stage tumours.
Lynda Thomas of Macmillan Cancer Support said: ‘Long before the pandemic hit, cancer waiting times were at their worst. Since the coronavirus outbreak, it is has become even harder for people with cancer to get the care and support they need and their anxieties have multiplied.’
Baroness Delyth Morgan of the charity Breast Cancer Now said: ‘It’s extremely concerning to hear of the major impacts the pandemic continues to have on thousands of people affected by cancer. The outbreak has led to many people’s cancer treatment being paused or delayed, an extremely worrying drop in the number of people being referred to see a cancer specialist, thousands of screening appointments being cancelled and some clinical trials being paused.’