During the pandemic, I wrote an article for this newspaper titled “Why can’t just one of these endless press conferences be devoted to non-Covid-related illnesses?” Perhaps naively, I thought it might be a suggestion that the Government would accept. Practically free, a low-controversy topic, and very little inconvenient – why wouldn’t they, I thought? The idea received a warm response on Twitter. Others clearly shared the same view. I’m sure it was seen by the army of bureaucrats working on pandemic communications, but nothing came of it.
Instead, those precious hours were spent justifying ridiculous policies, delivering paternalistic lectures and terrorizing the country into submission with apocalyptic scenarios. I remember very well a brigadier, dressed in military clothes, explaining with the help of a stick how he was building emergency Covid hospitals. All very impressive until he was asked who would take them over. It was clear that the Government wanted to be seen to be doing ‘something’, rather than aiming to report coherently and instructively. It was pure theater.
There were hundreds of such broadcasts, but not a single one focused on non-Covid conditions. I guarantee Scotch eggs were mentioned more times than cancer. It was all the more unpleasant given what was going on behind closed doors at No 10. Presumably ‘wine time Fridays’ were higher on the agenda than the emerging cancer crisis.
I look back with anger and bewilderment, especially given the scale of the crisis we are now experiencing in oncology. Predictably, the numbers leaked to the Journal of the Health Service show that more than 300,000 people are on England’s cancer waiting list, with almost 40,000 waiting more than 62 days after a GP referral for suspected cancer. More than 10,000 are waiting more than 104 days, twice as many as in June 2021. Oncologists in other countries simply cannot believe these numbers are true; it is simply unthinkable.
In reality, getting a GP appointment is a hurdle that many give up on. This is a controversial statement in some corners of the medical community, but it is certainly true. People are made to feel like a burden or spend hours in phone queues when the demands of everyday life don’t allow it. Whatever the reasons, the system is broken.
These are just the people who approach. What about the tens of thousands who have a developing tumor somewhere in their body but have not sought medical treatment? Every day it goes undetected, your chances of survival decrease as the cancer spreads faster than target waiting times are not met. Thousands will die. Many have already done so.
Anyone who doubts the severity of the cancer crisis should look at the emails I receive from desperate patients. This is not a hypothetical projection; it is a living nightmare for many. I honestly don’t know what the solution is. To be honest, there isn’t a complete one, certainly not in the short term. It’s a complete and utter disaster.
What happens when the country goes into recession, thanks in part to the legacy of lockdowns? My children and grandchildren will pay for our pandemic expenses long after I am gone. That means less money for cancer services and that means even more unnecessary suffering.
But those of us who made these arguments at the time were labeled irresponsible murderers. We received waves of abuse for daring to suggest that the consequences of confinement might be worth considering. In terms of our children’s well-being, non-Covid health issues, economic consequences, the list could go on. I’m angry about it. Non-Covid excess deaths are soaring above average, indicating that delayed diagnoses and treatments for a variety of illnesses are now catching up with people.
We failed a generation of children, many of whom are now overweight, unable to speak or struggling with tasks expected of their age. It is a doomed pandemic legacy that shames us all.
Any recovery will take decades, perhaps longer. For some, it will never come. Treatment of a tumor in the first stage has a high chance of success. But stage three or four? It can drop to around 10% survival and this can happen over months, not years. Countless mothers, fathers, friends and colleagues have already paid the ultimate price for these delays.
While politicians were busy putting counties into different “tiers” or imagining ever more ludicrous ways to destroy the hospitality industry, thousands of people were launching a symptom check. Would a press conference have made a difference? Who knows, but it certainly would have started a desperately needed conversation and signaled a change in government thinking.
The cynic in me suspects that those driving the lockdowns were reluctant to openly discuss the adverse consequences of the policy on a platform as powerful as these conferences. If anyone has a more reasonable or believable explanation, I’m all ears.
Professor Karol Sikora has been a consultant oncologist for 44 years and was director of the WHO Cancer Programme.
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