Covid-19: The Challenges Facing the NHS

The NHS is struggling in the face of the current Covid-19 peak.

From ambulances reporting huge rises in handover waiting times to record numbers of patients on waiting lists for routine treatments, there are few services that have not been affected.

CEO of NHS England Sir Simon Stevens told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the health service is “under extreme pressure”, adding that this pressure “will only get worse” in the coming weeks.

Routine treatments postponed

To help them cope with the number of Covid-19 patients currently admitted, hospitals are largely postponing scheduled routine procedures and leaving patients without confirmed dates on ever-expanding waiting lists.

According to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the pandemic has had a severe impact on the NHS, “causing major disruption to planned hospital treatment and other routine appointments for millions of patients – most notably in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers”.

The council added: “The longer the crisis continues, the less justifiable it becomes to ignore health needs unrelated to Covid-19 – whether emergency needs or those that have been overlooked or exacerbated by long delays in diagnosis or treatment.”

As a result, the council is calling on the government to issue guidance on how healthcare providers should make decisions on the allocation of resources to patients.

Oxygen supply problems

Among the problems experienced by hospitals is a failure in piped oxygen supplies. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch told The Independent that it was looking into oxygen provision after an unnamed NHS trust declared a major incident.

That hospital had to divert emergency patients to other hospitals, as well as transfer patients already admitted, because of concerns around the oxygen supply potentially failing.

According to The Independent, a number of London hospitals have experienced the same concerns over their oxygen supplies. Hospital pipes are unable to deliver the sheer amount of oxygen needed by patients with Covid-19.

Sir Simon Stevens said that more patients are now being treated with oxygen rather than in intensive care units, highlighting the critical importance of ensuring the gas supply in hospitals.

Vaccination efforts

The country is relying on the vaccination programme to provide immunity and keep the health service from becoming overwhelmed. But it will take many months to get everyone vaccinated, leaving the NHS in a precarious position this winter.

From today (18 January), 10 mass vaccination centres will open across the country. They are located in elite sports grounds, conference centres and even racecourses. It is hoped that they will quickly expand on the 4 million first doses already administered.

This week, people in England aged 70 and over and those considered clinically extremely vulnerable – priority groups three and four – will start to get their invitations to be vaccinated.

New strains

New variations of the coronavirus have so far been discovered in the UK, as well as in South Africa and Brazil. This has led the government to close travel corridors and force travellers to test negative before setting off and new arrivals to quarantine.

It is hoped that existing vaccines will still be effective against these strains. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been found to protect against the UK and South African strains, while it remains to be seen whether it will work against the Brazilian variation.

But the UK is still a long way from inoculating everyone and the new strain discovered here is spreading rapidly.

This leaves a lot of people at risk and the NHS in a hugely challenging position as it tries to ride out this pandemic peak.


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