What is abundantly clear from the events of the last 18 months is that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused untold hardship and worry throughout the UK, with undoubtedly the most serious impact being felt by those who were already clinically vulnerable and especially those with cancer.

Estimated 28 million fewer outpatient appointments

Recent evidence from the British Medical Association from the data set in June and July of 2021 demonstrated the highly disruptive impact of the shutdown of most non-Covid-19 services in the spring and summer of 2020. The association estimated that in the year to June 2021, there were more than 28 million fewer outpatient attendances. As a consequence, there have been widespread delays in treatments and a huge increase in waiting times for patients.

Though the picture for cancer patients improved slightly through the summer of 2021, the figures still showed that patients were progressing through the clinical pathway much more slowly than had been the case prior to the start of the pandemic.  This is against the backdrop of services under extreme pressure and a workforce consistently going above and beyond to care for patients at a time of enormous need.

Likely that thousands yet to be diagnosed with cancer

I share the views expressed by many experts that the figures are a huge tragedy. It is undoubtedly the case that there are likely to be many thousands of people up and down the country who have cancer but have not yet been diagnosed because they have been too frightened to attend the GP or the hospital.

Working for a specialist firm advising patients with mesothelioma and other occupational cancers, I have first-hand experience of seeing the impact these delays are having upon our clients and their families. 

Mesothelioma, in particular, has a generally poor prognosis. However, more and more frequently, I have been asked to help during the end stage of disease when I have a very limited amount of time to support the patient and the family with the advice and the financial assistance that they need, when I know that with more time, so much more could have been achieved.

It is hardly surprising that patients with mesothelioma are reluctant to seek early advice. Symptoms of the disease on initial presentation can include a persistent cough, tiredness and feeling short of breath – clearly also symptoms associated with coronavirus.

Support still available

However, whilst there have been instances of delays, what I can say from my own observations, speaking to our own clients and discussions with specialist nurses, is that clinical teams are working tirelessly to support patients. 

Cancer services are there to assist in early diagnosis and treatment and despite the pandemic, we have been able to provide specialist legal advice and support for patients as well as supporting them with access to specialist immunotherapy treatments.

As we approach the latter part of 2021, it is our hope that cancer services, supported by urgent investment, can regain some of the ground lost. For patients with cancer, the message is that services are there to support you – you just need to take the step of accessing those services. Everyone is ready to help.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people with mesothelioma and other illnesses at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.