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COVID-19: At least 4,000 non-COVID excess deaths caused by pandemic in England, report finds, with 32,000 missing cancer treatment

Pressure on the NHS created by COVID led to at least 4,000 excess deaths from other conditions and mean that 32,000 cancer patients who should have started treatment are still waiting, according to new analysis.

The figures come from a new report published by the CAGE centre at the University of Warwick.

It is thought to be the first such report to lay out in detail the potential impact COVID had on people without the virus trying to access healthcare.

Among the major factors thought to have affected excess deaths during the first year of the pandemic are a lack of bed space and staff shortages due to infections in workers.

Nursing levels were particularly hard hit, compared to managers and doctors, the report found.

How many people died?

For excess deaths, the study looked at data provided by NHS England, and excluded anyone who tested positive for COVID or who had the disease mentioned on their death certificate.

It said: “We estimate that, for the period from March 2020 to February 2021 alone, there have been at least 4,003 excess deaths of hospital patients in England that, if it were not for pandemic disruptions, would not have been expected to die.”

The 4,003 figure was noted as a “lower-bound” – with the real figure likely higher. It means that one non-positive person died due to COVID-related healthcare issues for every 30 who died with the virus.

Read more: NHS under pressure all over, but where are the pinch points?

NHS health leader warns of ‘compromised’ NHS care

What happened to waiting times?

A&E wait times also increased due to the pandemic, and time-based targets for elective treatments fell and have failed to recover.

Before the pandemic, 97% of diagnostics took place within the NHS goal of six weeks.

This fell as low as 56% in the first wave, and has only reached a high of 71% since.

“Given that the waiting list tends to be around one million entries long, these delays have affected millions of patients over the course of the pandemic,” the report said.

How has cancer treatment been affected?

The disruption also had a “significant negative impact” on cancer, with at least 32,189 people not getting treatment after a decision was made to start.

“We estimate that amongst detected urgent cancer cases, 53,068 people had their cancer care delayed past the NHS set goal,” the report added.

What caused the delays?

Aside from the fact resources were diverted to treat those with the virus, the report found delays were caused due to NHS staff being exposed to higher infection risk when cases were rising, leading to staff absences.

Frontline NHS staff – especially nurses – saw higher absence rates when services were hit by a “significant influx” in COVID patients.

Vaccination of NHS staff was found to “significantly reduce the link between COVID-19 admissions and staff absence rates”.

One of the authors of the study, Dr Christopher Rauh, said: “Our work highlights the importance of both staff absence rates and the vaccination of critical healthcare staff.”

He added: “We find that infections have led to higher staff absence rates which have a negative effect on the accessibility and quality of healthcare services.

“This along with simply increased pressures due to high numbers of admissions has led to the avoidable loss of lives both in the short as well as the long run, for example, due to worse cancer care. These risks could be pre-empted by promoting vaccinations or increasing staffing levels.”

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