Doctors warn that pressures of Covid and patient backlog mean NHS will struggle to cope this winter

by BMA media team

BMA press release

Location: England
Published: Sunday 25 October 2020
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Thousands of doctors in England have told a BMA survey that they have little or no confidence in the NHS to meet the needs of patients with Covid-19 as well as other conditions during the second wave.

And those working in areas under lockdown measures in England are very sceptical about their effectiveness. Just under 6 per cent said these measures would have any significant impact on containing the spread of the virus and 37 per cent said they would have no impact or be ineffective. 

In this, the latest of a series of surveys the BMA has carried out since March, more than 6,500 doctors in England once again voice their fears that the NHS will not cope with both the demands placed upon it by people with Covid and winter pressures, as well as the millions of patients on ever-growing waiting lists. They also revealed high levels of anxiety about the autumn and winter ahead.

More than 70 per cent said they were either not at all or not very confident about the abilities of services in community settings to cope.

  • 65 per cent were not confident about their own local healthcare service’s ability to cope.
  • 66 per cent said they were quite or extremely anxious about work in the coming months
  • More than 40 per cent said that their levels of stress, anxiety and emotional distress had got worse since the pandemic began. 

The survey reveals deep concerns relating to patient care. 65 per cent cite staffing shortages as their most pressing concern – and four in ten report that colleagues having to self-isolate due to Covid infection is impacting on patient care.  Following that, doctors are concerned about their personal health and wellbeing (60 per cent) and their ability to cope with caring for non-Covid patients (58 per cent). 44 per cent are most worried about the plans to manage the huge backlog of patients and the care and treatments they are waiting for.

The most recent NHS figures, from August of this year, showed record waits in a number of areas, including the wait between being referred by a GP to first treatment, and the number of people waiting longer than a year for treatment rising to the highest in over a decade.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said:

“Doctors know that this winter is likely be one of the most difficult times of their careers. They are extremely worried about the ability for the NHS to cope and their ability to care for the needs of their patients. These survey findings show the enormous scale of the challenges for the NHS in the coming months – and they reinforce the BMA’s call for a national and strategic approach to getting this virus under control.

“Fewer than one in three GPs say they work in settings which can even adequately separate potentially Covid and non-Covid patients, at a time when one in five doctors say that they are seeing more Covid patients than they did during the first wave.  Meanwhile there remains a backlog of millions of patients not receiving treatment during the first peak, and with only 27 per cent of doctors reporting that they have started to tackle the backlog, millions are still left waiting to be seen.

“Doctors are doing their best to keep patients safe, with seven in 10 are saying they are providing remote consultations to prevent the spread of infection in hospitals and GP practices.  But with this work often taking longer and proving more tiring, it’s clear that over-work and under-capacity is taking its toll on the NHS, its workforce and its patients.”

Dr Nagpaul added:

“As the waiting lists continue to grow and more and more beds are needed by those with Covid, this second wave could be devastating for patients, the health and social care service and those working in it.

“Large numbers of doctors across England have little faith that the Government’s current ‘Tiered’ based lock-downs will have any significant impact on controlling the virus.  Instead of a few short weeks of suppression, bringing economic and emotional misery for those in the areas affected, we need a national prevention strategy that has a lasting impact and gets growing infection rates under control across England.”

Further results from the survey of more than 6,500 doctors reveal that:

  • One in five say they are seeing more Covid patients than during the first wave.
  • 62 per cent report that non-Covid demand is at or above levels seen before the pandemic.
  • Only 27 per cent have said that they have started seeing ‘backlog’ patients – out of millions waiting.

The BMA is calling for the Government to be both honest and realistic with the public about whether the NHS can cope with routine care and Covid care this Winter, and to provide a transparent and systematic approach to ensure that all patients in urgent need will be seen and treated in the coming months.  It must provide the investment necessary to enable the NHS to do this.

The BMA continues to call for the £12 billion test and trace programme to be moved away from the private sector and the funds used to integrate test trace and isolate into the NHS and public health structures.



Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

6,610 doctors in England took part in the survey during the week of the 19th October 2020.  The full results are available on request and will be published on the this website shortly.