The first two waves of COVID-19 have led to the cancellation of almost all non-urgent NHS treatments and operations in order to free up capacity for COVID-19 patients. As a result, the number of patients waiting for more than a year to access treatment has skyrocketed from 1,600 in February 2020 to 192,000 in November 2020.
While the recent pressure on the health service is unprecedented, it‚’s not the first and unlikely to be the last time that the NHS struggles to cope. Most winters, flu and cold weather combine to put a serious strain on the NHS. For example, a particularly bad winter in 2017/18 resulted in over 50,000 excess winter deaths, which the government blamed on the strains of flu that season, the low effectiveness of the vaccine and cold temperatures. As a result, the number of people whose operation was cancelled and were not treated within 28 days of their original appointment jumped by two thirds during that winter, reaching 11.6%. More generally, the Nuffield Trust finds that ‚’drops in [NHS] performance are normally observed from November in any given financial year‚’, with performance only recovering by April.
The coming years will be very challenging for the NHS ‚’ even after the worst of the pandemic recedes, the burden of the disease will continue to be felt for a long time. The virus is likely to become endemic and pharmaceutical companies will have to play a game of cat-and-mouse to ensure vaccines catch up with mutations. Consequently, it‚’s more vital than ever that the NHS be able to flex its capacity to meet surging demand in the face of new strains of coronavirus and flu that the population lacks immunity against. We need a health system that can respond quickly to events.