Expert urges cancer screening to restart if staff have PPE

The unintended consequences the coronavirus lockdown is taking on Scotland’s health could be worse than the impact of the disease itself, according to a leading public health expert.

Professor Linda Bauld
Professor Linda Bauld

Professor Linda Bauld said she suspected the long term damage on people’s mental and physical health would be “far greater” than the challenge posed by the virus and said cancer screening could restart if the correct PPE was available to staff and patients.

The Edinburgh University academic said the “stay at home to protect the NHS” message had resulted in people with real health problems staying away from their doctors.

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“The consequences of the lockdown period and the longer term consequences for our young people – for jobs and the health impacts of unemployment, for example – in the fullness of time I suspect may emerge as far greater than the challenge we faced with addressing this virus,” she said. “We’ve already heard about the drop in urgent referrals for cancer of over 70 per cent, we know that accident and emergency admissions are down by about half.

“We know that hospital admissions full stop are down by about 42 per cent, looking at the latest data from Public Health Scotland. So it’s very obvious that the message ‘Stay home, protect the NHS’ has been interpreted as ‘Stay away from the NHS to protect it’.”

Prof Bauld, who chairs a key scientific group for Cancer Research UK, also told MSPs that hundreds of patients whose cancer would have been picked up through screening are currently undiagnosed, and while screening could start again better PPE provision was required to protect medical staff and vulnerable patients.

“We normally screen around 23,000 people a week - 100,000 people a month are no longer being screened in Scotland for bowel, breast and cervical cancer. Around 140 of those would probably get a positive result each month via screening programmes so if we imagine that is paused for two months that is 280 potentially late cancer diagnoses. Early diagnosis is basically what determines survival and treatment outcomes.

According to Prof Bauld equipment provided in Scotland is inferior to protective gear supplied to medics in other countries like China. “I am no expert in the procurement or specifics of what is required but I did organise a session with colleagues from China and when you look at the type of PPE being used in China... it is a level above what we currently have in some of our settings.

“We really need to take this seriously and recognise that this is not going to go away, and PPE is going to be something we need to have an emphasis on in future.”

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