Heart patients facing ‘biggest disruption ever’ as new figures raise alarm over cardiac care in capital

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

By Jamie Roberton

The UK is facing the biggest disruption to heart care it has ever seen because of coronavirus, specialists have warned, as new figures raised fresh fears over the impact on treatment in London. 

ITV News London has seen analysis from the British Heart Foundation revealing a collapse in the number of vital cardiac procedures carried out in the capital since the start of the pandemic. This includes:

  • A fall of more than 20% in performed heart operations and procedures, from around 38,000 in February 2020 and to around 30,000 in December

  • A drop of 20% in completed heart ultrasound tests in London between 2019 and 2020

  • A significant rise in the number of people waiting more than three months for an echocardiogram [a scan to assess the heart and nearby vessels], from 48 in February 2020 to more than 2,300 in December

The backlog could have a devastating impact on tens of thousands of people with heart problems, damaging long-term health prospects or even costing lives, the British Heart Foundation told ITV News London. 

The charity also raised concern at the paradox of current shrinking waiting lists for procedures, insisting while “it may look like a good news story, it does not reflect a decline in demand during the pandemic”.

Cardiologists have warned about the capacity to carry on care since the first national lockdown last Spring. Hospital data also suggested those suffering suspected heart attacks were putting off seeking treatment in the fear of contracting Covid or piling additional pressure on the NHS. 

London was severely hit in the second wave of the pandemic, with Mayor Sadiq Khan declaring a “major incident” in January as hospitals and frontline medics were pushed to the brink. 

As infections start to fall, the vaccination campaign continues to build momentum and talk turns to the roadmap out of lockdown, clinicians fear the true impact on non-Covid treatment is yet to be fully comprehended.

Calls are now growing for an urgent scaling up of non-Covid capacity to allow for the growing cardiac care backlog to be tackled. 

"People with heart disease have faced disruption at every stage of care on a scale never seen before,” Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation and Consultant Cardiologist, said.

"Delays to vital echocardiograms could have a devastating knock-on effect on the rest of someone’s treatment and impact cardiovascular care for years to come. 

"We’re already seeing the potential consequences, with an average of 100 extra heart and circulatory disease deaths in England a week.

"The NHS is doing all it can, but now the current wave is receding, a lack of available care to treat heart conditions must be addressed. To do this, more investment is urgently needed in the short and long term.”