Fewer than a third of specialist hospitals are delivering the same number of pancreatic cancer surgeries compared with before the pandemic, a new survey has suggested.
Hospitals with large intensive care units which admitted a lot of Covid patients have been badly affected, one of the report’s authors has suggested.
The survey, supported by groups including The Association Of Upper Gastrointestinal Surgery (Augis) and the Pancreatic Society Of Great Britain and Ireland (PSGBI), found that 32% of hospitals are delivering the same number of pancreatic cancer surgeries as before the pandemic.
Using data collected from all specialist pancreatic units across the UK between March and July 2020, and then again in February 2021, the researchers found that almost half of those units (44%) were now performing fewer than half of the pancreatic cancer surgeries than they were before the pandemic.
During the second peak of the virus in early 2021, 40% fewer pancreatic cancer operations were being performed nationally compared to before the pandemic.
Study producer and surgeon Keith Roberts described pancreatic cancer as “notorious for being quite aggressive and progressing rapidly”.
Mr Roberts, the surgical speciality lead for pancreatic cancer for the Royal College of Surgeons of England, told the PA news agency: “There’s been obviously a huge impact across the whole healthcare service because of Covid but pancreatic cancer is particularly susceptible because of the time critical nature of the cancer.
“Also the fact that pancreatic cancer surgery has been specialised into just a handful of hospitals in the country, specialist hospitals.
“And those larger specialist hospitals are the ones that have larger intensive care units and it seems that they’ve been more affected with Covid because they’ve taken more patients.
“That has reduced capacity for patients with surgery and they’re the main things that we’ve seen.”
Mr Roberts praised the “all hands to the deck” approach to the pandemic, but said there was “no such rhetoric” about restoring cancer services to their previous rate.
He explained: “Recovery of services is key, and I guess the worry and the concern is that with Covid it was all hands to the deck and the response was fantastic.
“People pulled together, teams pulled together, doctors, nurses they moved sideways into different roles and it was great.
“I’ve never felt or heard anything like it.”
He added: “Now that Covid is hopefully waning, there’s no such rhetoric about restoring cancer services and the worry is that we have a fatigued workforce but there’s no talk about now stepping up and helping to recover the surgery, the transplantation, the cancer work in that kind of collaborative effort.”
Diana Jupp, chief executive of charity Pancreatic Cancer UK said: “The NHS has worked exceptionally hard to manage Covid-19.
“However, it is clear that vital services for people with pancreatic cancer in some parts of the country have been, and remain, under pressure and are struggling to recover.
“It is imperative that action is taken to understand why that is happening and find solutions to prevent any treatment backlogs from increasing.”
She added: “It is vital that we now give the same focus and urgency to cancer care as we have done for Covid-19.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS in England has prioritised cancer patients throughout the pandemic and recently published a plan to accelerate the delivery of operations and other services with a £1bn elective recovery fund, following the intense winter wave of Covid.
“The latest figures show how cancer services have been maintained even during the height of the greatest pressure on the health service, with more than 250,000 people starting treatment since last March, 95% within a month.”