15 Apr 2020

The UK Government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been two-pronged. On the one hand, famously, the aim is to flatten the curve. By reducing the total number of people needing critical care at the same time, we can ensure there is capacity to deliver this care. Alongside this there has also been a drive to increase overall critical care capacity. The process of flattening the curve is having severe effects on the economy and people’s lifestyles but the drive to increase capacity is also going to be felt for years to come.

As our healthcare system pivots to providing critical care for those with COVID-19, many other aspects of care are being de-prioritised. For people with long-term conditions such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis this means cancelled appointments and struggling to get hold of their specialist. It means taking much more ownership of their care, at a time when staying healthy is most important and those living with underlying health conditions are feeling most vulnerable.

Throughout the UK hospitals are being re-configured and clinicians are being retrained in order to ensure that when the peak does come every person with COVID-19 gets the care they need. This takes doctors away from their usual patients and means anything but urgent care will be delayed; treatment reviews, progression scans and referrals all put on the back-burner for now. With NHS waiting times never far from the headlines in normal times, these further delays to treatment and diagnosis will only compound the issue, with people receiving slower care than they were last year.

These measures will cause immediate impact but will also be coupled with a longer term lag in innovation. The fastest way out of the COVID-19 crisis is through scientific and medical innovation. The development of treatments, tests and vaccines are a key part of the plan to bring this pandemic under control, however progress in other areas will be severely restricted. Over 400 clinical trials have already been postponed and this trend is likely to continue for some time to come.

There is a hope we will emerge with a population better at self-care, with more efficient digital healthcare practices, improved focus on managing underlying health conditions and a demonstration of how scientific innovation can be expedited, but in the meantime, we will see a drop in patient outcomes and just how severe this drop is, only time will tell.