The impact of the coronavirus pandemic means surgery services will run at about 60% of normal levels for the next two years, a Scottish Government report has said.
New policies are being developed to ensure fair access to the “limited surgical resource” as the health service recovers from the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Discussing the recovery of cancer surgery, the report says health boards should set up clinical prioritisation groups (CPGs) to ensure non-essential procedures do not restart on an ad-hoc basis.
Cancer Research UK said there is “huge concern” patients may not receive the best treatment.
The report says: “Current estimates are that surgery services will operate in most health boards at around 60% of pre-Covid levels for the next 24 months, and perhaps longer if there are further surges in Covid-19 incidence.
“Scottish Government therefore recommends that health boards (and hospitals) implement local governance policies to ensure fair and reasonable access to a limited surgery resource in terms of both hospital beds and elective green-site theatre capacity.”
It sets out a framework for classifying patients into five groups, ranging from “priority level one” cases, where surgery is needed within 72 hours, to “priority level four”, where surgery can be safely scheduled after 12 weeks.
At the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said urgent treatments should still be going ahead and returning services to normal is a “priority.”
Chief nursing officer Fiona McQueen said the health service is looking into making use of facilities such as the NHS Louisa Jordan emergency hospital or remote consultations.
She said: “It’s our dearest wish that anyone who needs any kind of treatment or care within the NHS gets it.
“But what people in Scotland need to know is that we are absolutely prioritising those that are urgent and cannot wait.
“So not everything is immediate and urgent but certainly we will be expecting to see our cancer patients being treated and we are doing everything we possibly can.”
Marion O’Neill, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s of huge concern that patients may not be able to receive the best possible treatment for their cancer.
“It’s clear from this report that Covid-19 has already had, and will continue to have, a significant impact.
“For some people, surgery can be a cure. Patients can receive other treatments, such as radiotherapy, in some cases.
“But this won’t always be possible so it’s extremely worrying that it’s anticipated that surgical services will operate on such a profoundly reduced basis.”
She added: “It’s vital health boards and Scottish Government continue to work together to make the most effective use of existing staff, equipment and approaches to care to address this backlog and ensure as many patients as possible can receive timely surgery.”
Macmillan Cancer Support also called for urgent action.
Janice Preston, the charity’s head of services in Scotland, said: “We need to look at innovative solutions as quickly as possible, such as the private sector and using the Louisa Jordan.
“Now is the time for radical thinking, otherwise the backlog is going to continue to grow and grow.”