Cancer services could be rationed to patients with the highest chance of survival if hospitals become overwhelmed with coronavirus, according to reports.
A document published by NHS England warns the frequency of treatments such as immunotherapy could be halved and long-term follow-up postponed indefinitely, as staff are diverted to fight COVID-19.
The report, seen by the Telegraph, also predicts that access to CT scanners could be limited because of their use by coronavirus patients.
Although its authors state that disruption of cancer services remains an “unlikely scenario”, they warn: “We need to consider the small possibility that the facility for cancer services may be compromised due to a combination of factors including staff sickness and supply chain shortages among others.
“In the event of disruption to cancer services, clinicians may also need to prioritise treatment for those most in need.”
It comes after the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) issued a new framework for intensive care which effectively allows doctors to ration beds and ventilators to those with the greatest chance of survival.
Hospitals have also been given permission to suspend all non-urgent treatment.
Health leaders have promised to protect urgent services such as cancer, but under the new protocol cancer patients in hospitals under pressure from coronavirus will be grouped into one of six categories, with treatments rationed accordingly.
They range from curative therapy with a greater than 50% chance of success, to non-curative therapy with an sub-50% chance of palliation, or temporary tumour control yielding less than one year’s life extension, the newspaper reports.
The new NHS cancer protocols are predicated on the expectation that a surge of coronavirus cases would deprive cancer services of some personnel, because of staff illness and redeployment, and equipment. Even where NHS cancer services are available, the new guidance advises patients to consider delaying treatment because of their heightened risk from COVID-19