The pandemic has inflicted terrible collateral damage on the NHS which will necessitate huge rises in health spending for the foreseeable future.
In the cancer field, the pandemic has led to delays in diagnosis and treatment but there are deeper wounds. Work on discovery and development of new drugs and diagnostics were abandoned. Labs were shut down for months during last year’s lockdowns. Most clinical trials had to be suspended.
Some scientists left oncology to work on Covid-19. Plus research has suffered from funds drying up. Researchers estimate that 18 months of progress has been lost.
The pandemic has hit charitable giving hard too. Cancer Research UK, Britain’s largest funder of oncology research, is predicting a £300million fall in income over three years.
As The Lancet Oncology, cancer’s leading journal, said in an editorial last month: “Covid-19 has had devastating effects on cancer patients [around the world], with huge numbers of missed diagnoses and delayed treatments, due to health systems under pressure and patients’ reluctance to seek medical care.”
Experts estimate that a week’s delay in cancer referral lowers a patient’s chances of survival by 1%.
In the UK, 4.4 million fewer cancer diagnostic tests were done last year than in 2019 and 44,000 fewer patients started treatment.
As isolation, grief and social disruption have taken a toll, mental health at all ages has suffered but young people seem most vulnerable.
Researchers at Surrey University assessed 259 students before the pandemic and again during lockdown last year. The shocking finding was clinical depression had more than doubled from 15% to 35%. It’s bad in the US too, where Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey of 790,00 Americans, which showed mental health deteriorating during the pandemic. The proportion of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depression rose from 36.4% in August 2020 to 41.5% in February 2021.
Increases were largest in the 18-29 age group.
No one would deny that mental health services to help children and young adults should be the priority. There’s a growing demand for the services of therapists, psychiatrists, nurses and other specialists so training for professionals across the spectrum of mental health must be expanded.
In the long run, the mental health and cancer services can improve efficiency by learning lessons from the pandemic – for example, treating more patients remotely, whether that’s by running more video consultations or prescribing more drugs that can be taken at home.
But action is needed now to tackle the immediate crises in both areas.