Coronavirus: Hospital waiting lists lengthened during Covid-19 lockdown

Number of people waiting for some procedures rose by nearly 60%, figures show

HSE officials are expected to tell the Covid-19 committee that acute hospitals will not be able to cope if a second wave of the coronavirus falls during the winter flu season. Photograph: Alan Betson

HSE officials are expected to tell the Covid-19 committee that acute hospitals will not be able to cope if a second wave of the coronavirus falls during the winter flu season. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Coronavirus has seen hospital waiting lists for surgeries increase by more than a quarter, while mental health and other services were reduced during the national lockdown, an Oireachtas committee will be told on Friday.

Waiting lists for surgery and other procedures increased by 17,518 during the coronavirus pandemic, a 26 per cent rise, the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) will tell the Oireachtas committee on Covid-19.

The number of people waiting for outpatient consultations increased by 25,845 during the crisis, according to the NTPF, the State agency set up to reduce waiting lists.

The numbers waiting for gastro-intestinal scope procedures increased by 13,173, a near-60 per cent rise, figures show. The increases are a result of the decision in March to cancel elective hospital surgeries and procedures.

Health Service Executive officials are expected to tell the Covid-19 committee that acute hospitals will not be able to cope if a second wave of the coronavirus falls during the winter flu season.

Flu vaccine

To avoid hospitals becoming overrun during a potential second Covid-19 surge in the winter, the uptake of the flu vaccine will need to be increased, according to a HSE briefing for the committee.

Additional support for general practitioners and other community services will be needed to avoid overcrowding emergency departments, the briefing states.

Half of mental health services operated at reduced levels during the pandemic, it adds. Some 30 per cent of community health services for older persons were suspended, along with 21 per cent of disability services.

Screening programmes such as CervicalCheck and BreastCheck have built up backlogs while they were suspended, which will be difficult to clear, the briefing also states.

“This backlog will now have to be cleared in a Covid environment, which represents an additional challenge,” due to physical distancing requirements and lower capacity, it continues.

Emergency departments saw a drop in attendances of nearly a third between January and April, it also states, as the number of coronavirus cases surged.

The health service will need an additional 5,000 hospital beds and 300 extra intensive care beds to be ready for future waves of Covid-19, the Irish Medical Organisation is to tell the committee.

Lack of beds

The HSE was not “an employer of choice” for many consultants, the doctors representative group’s opening statement says.

The coronavirus pandemic had exposed “huge capacity deficits” in the acute hospital system, such as a lack of both beds and staff, it adds.

The shortcomings were a result of “neglect by successive governments over many years”, it said. The group will call for the rollout of a “total population flu-vaccination programme” ahead of the coming winter flu season.

The IMO is also to call for an urgent plan to “recruit and retain hospital consultants”, particularly in fields such as emergency medicine where there is a current “deficit”, it said.

Dr Frank Conaty, acting chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, is to tell the committee the pandemic has had an “disproportionate” impact on people with disabilities.

There were “significant gaps and vulnerabilities in existing policy and services” in the disability sector, which had been laid bare by Covid-19.

The pandemic has had a “damaging impact” on people awaiting cancer diagnostic tests and screening, the Irish Cancer Society is to tell the committee.

The organisation is to call for ring-fenced funding to ensure cancer services and screening could continue in the event of a second coronavirus wave.

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