Thousands fewer heart attack victims sought help from hospitals during the UK’s second national lockdown in November, sparking fears among researchers of more avoidable deaths.
Experts said as many as 2,000 excess deaths may be linked to the drop in patients going to hospital during the first wave of the virus in 2020, warning that similar levels could be occurring now as well as during the November lockdown.
Researchers looked at data on the numbers of patients with heart failure and heart attacks attending 66 hospitals across England and Wales and compared the numbers to previous years.
From the beginning of October to 17 November, the median average daily number of people attending hospital emergency units with heart failure dropped 41 per cent, the equivalent of 13 patients a day being seen compared to 22 pre-Covid. For heart attacks the number of admissions dropped by 34 per cent, with 28 patients seen a day compared to 42 before the pandemic.
In the first lockdown, which began on 23 March last year, 54 per cent fewer people attended hospital A&E units with heart failure, an estimated 10 patients a day compared to 22 before lockdown. There was also a 32 per cent drop in heart attack patients, with 29 patients a day being seen compared to 42 before.
Numbers did recover by June but not to the levels seen before the pandemic.
Chris Gale, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Leeds, said: “I am afraid that we are seeing a re-run of one of the preventable tragedies of the first wave – people were either too afraid to go to hospital for fear of contracting Covid-19 or were not referred for treatment.
“The message to patients needs to be clear. If they experience symptoms of a heart attack or acute heart failure, they need to attend hospital. These are unforgiving medical emergencies. With the right help, people can recover from them. But if patients delay or avoid treatment, they will suffer life-limiting complications – or they will die.”
Throughout the pandemic the NHS has warned patients not to delay seeking help if they become unwell. England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned last year that he was concerned the impact of the lockdown on the NHS would lead to what he called “indirect deaths” as treatment was delayed for other patients.
The findings have been published in a letter to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Dr Jianhua Wu, associate professor at the University of Leeds, and who led the analysis, said: “One of the worrying aspects of our research is that the decline we have seen since October may not have yet bottomed out. Inevitably there is a fear that will result in deaths that perhaps could have been avoided.”
Professor Simon Ray, president of the British Cardiovascular Society, added: “This research illustrates again the importance of the message that other medical problems don’t stop because of Covid and that people with serious problems like heart attack and acute heart failure still need to be seen and treated urgently to prevent death or long-term ill health.”