Clinical negligence lawyers expect a flood of claims in the coming months over fears that cancer diagnosis and treatment have been sidelined during the pandemic.
The journal Lancet Oncology last week predicted that delays in treatment since March could lead to 3,500 avoidable cancer deaths in England in the next five years.
Individual media reports of cancer patients suing the NHS are just the tip of the iceberg, the Gazette has been told. Mary Smith, a Bristol-based medical negligence expert with Novum Law, said that even before the pandemic, the NHS was struggling to meet the demand for services, with over four million people on waiting lists. Current estimates are these numbers will more than double.
‘The pandemic has created a “perfect storm” in which patients have had their tests and treatment deferred,’ said Smith. ‘Many have found their condition has deteriorated or their prognosis is much worse as a result, while others have put off accessing the vital services they need.’
Julie Grayston from north-west firm Graystons Solicitors, said there is likely to be a surge of cases, although currently people are reluctant to pursue the NHS.
She added: ‘The problem will be whether the decision was correct at the time that treatment should stop or that people shouldn’t go to hospital. I think the fundamental issue is that the decision was made without any individual discussion to weigh up the risks of delaying treatment.’
Paul Rumley, chair of the Society of Clinical Negligence Lawyers, said there has yet to be an increase in cases related to diagnosis and treatment being delayed, but this may become apparent over time. He stressed that compensation payments are likely to be case‑specific.
‘The balancing factor is whether the courts are prepared to allow such claims or whether defendants successfully argue it is a resources issue – that so much was being thrown at a pandemic that other services had to suffer, but that was reasonable and therefore excusable.’
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.