Shropshire Star comment: The NHS will need more support to fight treatment backlog

The coronavirus pandemic has given us some nuances to medical terminology.

Lead Nurse at the vaccination centre at the SSE Arena, Belfast
Lead Nurse at the vaccination centre at the SSE Arena, Belfast

There are people who die of Covid-19. There are people who die with Covid-19, meaning they die within 28 days of a positive test, but not necessarily directly of Covid.

And then there are all those other people for whom the statistics are more difficult to collate, but we know they must exist, and that is those who die, or whose survival chances are reduced, as a result of coronavirus being prioritised by the National Health Service to their detriment.

According to data from NHS England, a total of 4.7 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of February. This is the highest figure since records began in August 2007.

The figures are startling – and worrying. While delays are inevitable given the scale of the challenge the NHS has faced with Covid, the situation is critical. How we address this problem and clear the backlog is now the crucial question to ensure those people on the waiting list get the treatment they need.

Waiting lists are an issue even in a pandemic-free era. So while the picture on the coronavirus front is improving, with the numbers of patients with Covid in hospital falling massively thanks to the continuing rollout of the vaccination programme, this backlog is not going to go away and will take a long time to clear.

That means worry and anguish for those millions who are going to be kept waiting. For many it will be an inconvenience, but for those with progressive conditions every day of waiting is a day lost.

Even at the peak of the pandemic the NHS was not overwhelmed by the challenge, although its staff were left exhausted. A positive to take from the dreadful experience of the last 13 months is that it coped, and has continued to be able to complete millions of operations and other elective care despite the impact of Covid.

Yet having ridden out one critical challenge, this amounts to another critical challenge for our NHS.

We clapped the NHS workers to thank them, but in future months and years they will need the sort of support and resources which have been given during the pandemic to catch up and eat into this backlog mountain.

In the words of that famous World Cup commentary, there are some who think it's all over. Or at least they are acting as if they think it's all over.

But it isn't. Not now, and not tomorrow. Go down the pub, get a drink or two in the beer garden, and in no time at all you may find yourself wafted back to those carefree, social distance-free, coronavirus-free days.

The relaxations of this week have seen things look a bit more normal, which is a long way from them actually being normal. Which is why the police are stressing the need not to become complacent.

They say they are conducting high visibility patrols in places where more people are about, to provide both reassurance and advice.

Really, you shouldn't need a police officer to tell you what should by now be common sense. Anyone close enough to breathe over you may unknowingly have coronavirus – not something to share. And if you are close enough to breathe over somebody else, you might yourself have coronavirus without knowing it and infect them.

These new freedoms are great, but we need to protect them by being sensible.

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