Thousands of doctors reveal fears around NHS’s ability to cope with 'incredible demand' amid surge in Covid infections, in major new survey

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA. 

Location: UK
Published: Sunday 20 December 2020

The new restrictions announced by the Prime Minister yesterday will be seen as a necessary step by many doctors who, in a major BMA survey1, revealed concerns over the level of pressure on our health service and the ability to cope with demand.  It also highlighted deep-seated fears over the impact the relaxation of rules at Christmas would have on the soaring number of Covid patients needing treatment.

The result is from a survey2 of almost 8,000 doctors and medical students from across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, conducted in the last week. They implored the public to take steps to avoid the spread of Covid-19, including mixing with as few people as possible this Christmas, wearing face masks, and avoiding visiting friends and relatives who are vulnerable due to a health condition.

BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said:

“This survey was done ahead of last night’s rule change, but it shows the level of worry felt by so many doctors working in an overwhelmed health service that is struggling to cope with current levels of ill patients, both with covid and other conditions. Yesterday’s announcement, while hugely disappointing to the millions of people now having to cancel Christmas plans, affirms that the tightening of the restrictions is absolutely the right decision and one which will save lives.

“This survey reveals a profession fearful not just for the patients we have now, but for those we will soon have to treat in the new year as a result of a rise in infections caused in part by the new strain but also by increased socialising during Christmas.

“Whether it’s Covid or cancer, we are extremely worried that there may not be the capacity in our health service to provide care for everyone who needs it if the infection rates continue to soar. Our NHS and its staff are already at the point of collapse; with many hospitals full to capacity at the very start of the busy winter period, these tougher measures are necessary to give the health service a fighting chance to cope with the incredible demand it is experiencing and will likely continue to.

“Doctors are telling us they’re already seeing significant increases in the number of Covid and non-Covid patients, and that they don’t believe their hospitals or practices will be able to cope in the new year. What’s crucial to understand is that when we talk about protecting the NHS, this is not an abstract concept, a set of initials or a building somewhere. The NHS provides care for us all, when we most need it. If it doesn’t cope, the consequences impact on each and every one of us; real people will suffer.

“We all wanted to have some semblance of Christmas this year but given these latest developments, particularly with the emergence of this new faster spreading strain, the best thing we can do now is stay at home to protect ourselves and our loved ones this year. Though there is some hope that in a few months the vaccination programme will allow family, relatives and friends to mix together once again.”

Among the key findings:

  • More than half (52%) of respondents said they had seen a significant increase in the number of Covid cases in the last two weeks;
  • One in three (34%) said current levels were higher than during the same point during the first wave;
  • A third (33%) of respondents said the level of demand for care of patients without Covid is now considerably higher than before the pandemic began.     

The survey findings paint a picture of a health service struggling to cope with both the direct impact of Covid-19 and the huge backlog3 of other treatments put on hold by the pandemic, and doctors distressed at not being able to provide the levels of care they want to and that patients deserve to receive. Survey findings revealed:

  • Nine in 10 (88%) respondents said they felt uneasy that they could not provide the standard of care they wanted during the pandemic
  • A third (33%) said this unease had got worse since October;
  • Thousands of doctors said they are not confident of their department or practice’s ability to manage either Covid-related (40%), or non-Covid (51%), demand in the coming weeks.

Hundreds of doctors also added comments to the survey including:

“Christmas relaxation is dangerous and irresponsible. Currently in tier 3. Won’t be seeing any relative other than my own current bubble… Can’t understand how a relaxation is safe at all.”

“There should be no relaxation of the Covid rules over Christmas as we will see a significant rise in cases and increased death figures because of any relaxation.”

“I disagree with relaxing the rules for this 5-day period over Xmas… as this will result in even higher levels of infections in January. I’m certain that work will be even tougher in Jan/Feb as a result of this easing of rules at Christmas.”

“We shouldn't be mixing households at all. We certainly should not be moving out of tiered areas. We should be staying in our own locality. This is going to lead to a third, much worse, wave.”

Ends

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.

  1. 7,776 doctors and medical students took part in the survey between 14 and 17 December.
  2. See PDF for breakdown of questions and responses.
  3. Number of patients waiting over 1 year for treatment has already climbed to 162,888 – 123 times more people than last October and the highest count since May 2008.

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