If you haven’t yet been approached about having a Covid booster jab, your phone is about the spring into life – and it is unlikely to let you forget it until you agreed to have your third dose of the vaccine. The Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday evening that every adult is to be offered a jab by the end of December, as opposed to the end of January as previously planned, will mean averaging a million jabs a day – even more than the peak of the inoculation programme in the spring.
But there is a price to pay, and health secretary Sajid Javid admitted as much on this morning’s Today programme. 'For the next couple of weeks,' he said, 'our GPs will only be focussing on urgent needs and vaccination, and it means non-urgent appointments and elective surgeries may have to be postponed into the New Year.'
Is this wise, when the NHS is already suffering a huge backlog in treatments? Even more to the point, could the policy of making it even harder to see a GP eventually kill more people than might be saved by accelerating the booster vaccine programme?
Javid did at least say that people with cancer symptoms should still make appointments with their GPs. But that doesn’t cover the eventuality of someone who has symptoms they don’t necessarily associate with cancer but which their GP may well think is caused by that disease.
Only gradually is the cost of deterring people from seeking medical advice during the first lockdown becoming clear. According to the National Audit Office, there have been between 240,000 and 740,000 ‘missing’ referrals since the beginning of the pandemic. This is the difference between the number of referrals that would have been expected over the period and the number that actually took place. The result has been an estimated 35,000 to 60,000 fewer people starting treatment for cancer than would have been expected.
Unless Covid turns out to be a miracle cancer cure – somewhat unlikely – then these cancer cases are still out there; it is just that they have not been diagnosed, and by the time they eventually are it may be too late. The British Heart Foundation says it has already detected an increase in deaths from heart disease. During the first year it says there were 5800 excess deaths (i.e. over and above the number you would have expected over that period). While Covid 19 may have been a factor in many of these, there were still many excess heart deaths which did not involve Covid.
The government might not have intended it this way – and ministers might have told people on many occasions to continue to seek medical advice – but this is what happens when you tell people to ‘stay home’ and ‘protect the NHS’. Inevitably people are going to think twice about making an appointment with a GP to discuss symptoms which could just turn out to be something serious. The charge that the NHS has become a ‘national covid service’ was frequently made last year. We are likely to hear it again over the next few weeks.