Some patients have had their procedure cancelled several times, even though their poor health means the surgery is urgent. Others have had operations cancelled on the day they were scheduled to take place.
Doctors’ leaders and the Patients Association have expressed alarm at the cancellations. They warned that very ill patients could die as a result and questioned whether the NHS can still offer timely acute care all year round.
Hospitals say that the NHS’s limited supply of intensive care beds has forced them to prioritise flu patients at risk of dying before surgery over other very sick people, including those with cancer and heart problems.
More than 190 people in the UK have died so far in this year’s flu outbreak, the worst since 2009-10, with thousands of others being admitted to hospital, often to an intensive care or high dependency unit.
NHS England took the unprecedented step of allowing hospitals to cancel tens of thousands of planned operations this winter in order to free up beds, given the extra demand for treatment. It was made clear to them on both 21 December and 2 January that “cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead as planned”.
However, since the start of December, acute trusts in England have cancelled up to 91 operations each for patients with cancer, heart problems or an aortic aneurysm – a bulge in one of the body’s major vessels that, unless repaired quickly, can burst and kill.