Dying cancer patients abandoned as coronavirus derails UK research and treatment

Cancer Research UK has announced a £44m cut to its research efforts this year as Covid-19 undermines home care services and hospital treatments

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 08 April 2020 16:19 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

Hundreds of dying cancer patients have had home visits by Marie Curie nurses cancelled as the coronavirus outbreak derails UK cancer research and forces hospitals to cancel treatments.

Some cancer patients have even been asked to “make their own mind up” as to whether or not to continue with their treatment at hospitals battling to cope with rising numbers of Covid-19 cases.

The terminal illness charity, Marie Curie, told The Independent it had been forced to cancel at least 155 visits to dying patients since Thursday last week because of a lack of protective equipment and staff shortages.

Without home care services some patients and families may have no alternative but to go to hospital or call an ambulance.

The UK lockdown has also hit fundraising activities with the charity sector predicting a £4bn loss. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to announce more support for the charity sector later on Wednesday.

Cancer Research UK has announced a £44m cut to its research this year because of a feared 25 per cent drop in income.

Other patients have been told their treatments and surgeries are too risky while the virus is still spreading.

There have been reports some patients have been told they will not be treated after being newly diagnosed with cancer while hospitals have cancelled or delayed appointments.

NHS England has said hospitals should try to “ring-fence” services at private hospitals to continue diagnosing and treating cancer patients.

In London cancer services across the capital are now being coordinated at a specialist “Cancer Hub” led by The Royal Marsden and University College London Hospitals.

The Marie Curie charity said it had been hit hard by new guidance on protective equipment (PPE) which required its nurses to wear aprons, gloves and surgical face masks even when people have no symptoms. There is a widespread shortage of equipment.

The charity said its services had been thrown “into crisis” with at least 155 visits cancelled, and it has warned hundreds more could be affected in coming weeks.

Julie Pearce, chief nurse at the charity, said: “The supplies of PPE that have been made available to Marie Curie staff to date are, bluntly, not enough. It is a daily battle to get the orders delivered to the right places and we don’t know what or when they will arrive.

“We can only continue to relieve pressure on the NHS by caring for dying people, with and without coronavirus, at home and in our hospices, if we have the right equipment available everywhere. If we don’t get the PPE we need there is a very real possibility that more visits to patients dying in their homes will need to be cancelled.”

Mandy Watkins, a senior healthcare assistant in Staffordshire who was forced to cancel appointments, said: “I was supposed to be working last night. I feel awful for our patients and their families. We don’t mind being busy, we don’t mind facing extra pressure, we’ll take on anything thrown at us, but not being able to provide care because we don’t have equipment – for us that’s heartbreaking.”

Like many charities Marie Curie is facing a real impact on its funding and needs to raise £2.5m a week to run its nursing and hospice services. It has launched an emergency appeal to try and raise funds.

Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, said: “Cancer Research UK funds nearly 50 per cent of the cancer research in the UK and making cuts to research funding is the most difficult decision we have had to make. We don’t do so lightly.

“We are hopeful that limiting our spending now will enable us to continue funding life-saving research in the long run.”

Cancer Research UK said its helpline had received calls from concerned patients who have been told that their treatment is on offer but it is up to them whether or not they undergo treatment.

Other patients have raised concerns that blanket decisions have been made on whether or not they will be treated.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, told PA: “We have heard anecdotally that some people feel like the decisions have been made to cancel operations or to not continue a treatment and it has been a blanket decision – they’re not necessarily hearing from their doctors that this is something that has been done on an individual basis, it’s just a case that the hospital is overwhelmed so we can’t do this at the moment.

“Obviously we can’t validate those stories but anecdotally we are hearing a mixed picture of people being offered reasonable decisions, and perhaps in some instances decisions are being made about treatment in a more blanket way.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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