James Reid reports on the human face of pressures on the health service – which was already struggling for the past decade under austerity, before inevitably being impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic

“I said to the surgeon just do the operation and stick me in a corridor afterwards, send me straight home, stick me in a broom cupboard I don’t care, just do it.”

Sharron, a 59-year-old with spinal stenosis who also looks after her elderly mother, has been waiting for surgery for more than a year. Meanwhile, her condition has deteriorated to the point that daily tasks are now a struggle.

“I used to love baking, I loved cooking but I can’t do that anymore,” she told Byline Times. “I have to cook sitting down which is very unnerving because you’re on eye-level with the pan.

“I should be able to do a lot more. I should be able to go out and do gardening, to be able to peg the washing out – I couldn’t even do that this year. I should be able to put the bins out on bin day. I can’t even vacuum the house properly. I have to do it sitting, going from chair, to chair, to chair. If I was to try and stand at the basin to clean my teeth, I wouldn’t make it. I can’t stand unaided for more than two minutes.”

Sharron is one of six million people in the UK currently waiting for treatment on the NHS – a figure that has risen dramatically since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. The pressure on the NHS as a result of the crisis has seen routine appointments and procedures pushed-back. Surgeries with wait times of weeks have turned into months, even years. 

While much of the focus has been on the pressure of waiting lists on the NHS and – rightly – on its impact on cancer referrals, behind this is the silent struggle of people with chronic or undiagnosed illnesses that are steadily deteriorating as they wait longer and longer for treatment.

Getting worse, too, is the mental health of those anxiously waiting to know if and when they will be treated, alongside the knowledge that their conditions are likely getting worse and therefore more difficult to treat.

“It’s not just about that you can’t walk, that you can’t go out,” Ruth Isden, of AgeUK, told Byline Times. “People find it really emotionally and psychologically hard as well. It’s really affecting people’s mental health. The level of health anxiety is really high and it’s not just COVID. There’s anxiety about waiting, not knowing if they’ll get treatment, when they’ll get treatment, if it’s going to happen.” 

For Sharron, this is something she knows all too well.

“The waiting is absolutely killing me, being sent home three times has sent me to an all-time mental low,” she said.

Spinal stenosis is a condition in which pressure is placed on nerves in the spine and it can cause weakness in limbs, problems with walking and back pain. Surgery can be required to lessen this pressure.

“You know when you see old people walking around, leaning on a walking stick and they’re bent forward,” said Sharron. “Well, that’s me and I’m not even 60.”

Sharron was first sent for a MRI scan in September 2020, after which she was quickly diagnosed with spinal stenosis along with prolapsed discs. The advanced nature of her condition meant that she was immediately put forward for surgery, which she was told would be in weeks.

Yet, it was not until August that her first chance at surgery came – only for her to be sent home after waiting eight hours in hospital due to a lack of space. This happened again in both October and November, leaving Sharron no closer to getting the surgery that may give her a much better quality of life.


A Wider Crisis

Sharron’s story is not unique. She is just one of the more than six million people currently waiting – a number that has steadily risen over the past decade.

While the problem has acutely worsened during the Coronavirus pandemic, the impact of austerity has meant that NHS waiting times were a problem long before the crisis hit in early 2020.

According to a report by the House of Commons Library in October, waiting lists increased by 74% between December 2012 and December 2019 – rising to 4.5 million just three months before the pandemic.

Treatment levels are now, slowly, beginning to return to pre-pandemic levels, though this is now threatened once again by the rise of the new Omicron variant.

The Government has already pledged extra funding to try and deal with the backlog, but that is only part of the problem. For people like Sharron, the issue is not just about getting seen but the impact that waiting has had in the form of harder-to-treat conditions and worsening mental health. 

Simply treating more people is only part of the solution to a now much bigger crisis. On top of issues around mental health and deterioration of conditions, there are other challenges – such as the divide between people who can and cannot go private alongside the number of people not yet even on the waiting list. 

“I think we all know it is going to get worse before it gets better” Ruth Isden told Byline Times. “Because there’s a waiting list that we know about, but there’s also a huge backlog of cases of people who haven’t come forward yet or haven’t been diagnosed – they’re not even on the list yet.”

The Government has acknowledged that the NHS waiting list will extend well beyond six million people, meaning that many more will likely be dragged into this growing crisis – not just of how long people are having to wait, but the slow and silent impact it is having on people’s everyday lives.

Any solution to this crisis must address the wider problems at play rather than simply focusing on the raw numbers.

“I’m not managing – I’m stuck,” said Sharron. She is not the only one.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told Byline Times: “Whilst the pandemic has put enormous pressures on the NHS and caused waiting lists to grow, we are committed to ensuring people get the treatment they need. Our £500 million Mental Health Recovery Action Plan has ensured we’re offering the right support this year to help people with a variety of mental health conditions.

“Our record investment in the NHS includes an extra £2 billion this year and £8 billion over the next three years to cut waiting times, including through delivering an extra nine million checks, scans and operations, making sure more patients get the treatment they need sooner.”

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