UK doctors have expressed 'deep concerns' about being able to manage a surge in demand in the coming months when they have to address the huge backlog of patients awaiting NHS treatment in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a survey from the British Medical Association of 8000 doctors, more than half (52%) said they were either not very confident or not confident at all in their own department being able to manage patient demand as NHS services are resumed.

This rise in demand is already being felt on the ground with over 40% of doctors saying it had increased significantly in the past week, with more than one in 10 saying it had already exceeded pre-March levels. 

More than a quarter of doctors also said there had been no engagement with them over how to manage the increase in demand in their place of work or local area.

How to prioritise the sickest patients left without treatment during pandemic

The BMA is calling on the Government to be honest about the scale of the task ahead, and to bring together health leaders and staff groups to ensure frontline clinicians are leading discussions on how to prioritise the sickest patients left without treatment due to the redeployment of staff and resources to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

It believes the following must be priorities for the Government in addressing the NHS backlog:

  • Transparency: Comprehensive data on healthcare demand, population health and workforce must be rapidly collated and published to inform planning in the months ahead. This will include up-to-date data around waiting lists as well as the prevalence of certain conditions and health inequalities.
  • Capacity: The NHS redistributed capacity to care for Covid-19 patients during the peak of the pandemic, but at the expense of other treatments and services. The Government must commit to giving the NHS whatever resources it needs to tackle the backlog as well as the capacity it needs to meet demand in the long-term.
  • Workforce: Additional physical capacity only works if there are staff to provide care – and the system has so far relied on doctors working above and beyond to meet Covid-19 demand. Efforts must be taken to retain, support and protect the valuable staff who have given their all in fighting the pandemic, prioritising their wellbeing and mental health.
  • Learning: Services have been overhauled in the response to the crisis, and the NHS must keep the positive changes for the long-term while ditching unnecessary, outdated systems in other areas. A key element of this will rely on IT functionality.

Positive improvements need to retained

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “The NHS entered this crisis severely on the back foot. We had record waits for A&E and cancer care, occupancy levels were dangerously high and we were perilously short of staff.

“While healthcare workers rallied around heroically to tackle the pandemic on the frontline, it was a wake-up call to just how under-resourced and underprepared we were. Resources were diverted to Covid-19 efforts at the expense of other care and patients."

He said that figures earlier this week  found more than 2 million people waiting for cancer care alone, with overall waiting lists projected to hit 7 million by autumn. Meanwhile, ONS statistics this week estimated that, tragically, there have been more than 56,000 excess deaths during the epidemic in England and Wales, with almost a quarter of these not being due to Covid-19 itself.

He also added that doctors have embraced new ways of working, including further use of video technology and remote working. A reduction in paperwork, bureaucracy and unnecessary regulation has liberated doctors and allowed them to dedicate their time to seeing patients.

"We must retain these positive improvements, which of course require systematic changes like guaranteed access to up-to-date IT software and hardware – the lack of which has frustrated healthcare workers for too long," he said.