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Coronavirus Crisis is 'Stopping Vital Cancer Care' in England

May 20, 2020

Cancer treatment has become a postcode lottery with many patients not receiving vital care as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, doctors have warned.

Leading oncologists have said that even those patients in category one and two priority, the highest for continuing treatment, are not receiving chemotherapy.

The NHS said non-urgent operations would have to be put on hold so hospitals could focus on battling the Covid-19 pandemic, and NHS England guidance states that cancer services should continue to deliver care. However, it also calls for “local solutions to continue the proper management of these cancer services while protecting resources for the response to coronavirus”.

Prof Karol Sikora, the chief medical officer at Rutherford Health, which runs oncology centers, said the advice provided by NHS England around cancer was sensible but was being “implemented inconsistently” around the country.

“That is always the trouble – it becomes inconsistent, so people getting chemotherapy have now had it stopped even though they are category one and two patients, the highest priority. Also some hospitals have put blanket bans on cancer treatment for two to three weeks ... Not everyone needs to rush ahead with cancer treatment but others need to continue despite this to get the best long-term cure,” he said.

Sikora said: “The important thing here is people with curable cancer still get treatment. The private sector is in talks with NHS England and providers to provide increased capacity for NHS patients.”

The doctor said one of his close friends who worked in gastroenterology had got an email from a nurse saying “not to bother coming in” and that his treatment would be “stopped for the duration of the crisis”. “The emotion is very difficult for our patients ... everything is uncertain,” he said.

“It is a hard decision regarding how much you transfer care to coronavirus and how much say ‘we have to keep going with vital non-urgent but critical services’. The same is true of cardiac care.”

He said that there was the “looming threat” that cancer centers would close and all staff would go to the new Nightingale hospitals, built to take coronavirus patients from overstretched NHS facilities. “I don’t think that will happen. But there is concern that they will abandon all cancer patients. It would be sad if that happened.”

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