NHS surgeons are only working at around 50 per cent capacity, the president of their Royal College has revealed, despite record waiting times for crucial operations.
Official figures show that more than 50,000 people have waited a year for treatment – up from 1,117 a year ago.
It comes amid concern about a surge in positive Covid cases, with daily records showing 1,522 cases, up from 1,048 the day before. However, weekly figures show the first decline for six weeks, despite rises in the numbers being tested.
The vast majority of NHS surgery and other routine treatment was stopped for months during lockdown.
But medics said efforts to restore services are moving too slowly, with some likening their hospitals to “the Mary Celeste” because so many patients were being kept away.
Prof Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said the NHS was struggling to restore services, with a lack of routine testing for NHS staff hindering efforts to create “Covid-free” zones.
Prof Mortensen, who took up his post last month, said many patients had been left in pain and distress, following the decision to suspend routine surgery for months.
While some surgeons were left frustrated and “didn’t have much to do” for months during the epidemic, they were now finding that procedures intended to protect against Covid meant they could only cope with half their normal workload.
“Most surgeons would say productivity is around half what it was before,” said Prof Mortensen, a colorectal surgeon.
Dr Chris Moulton, former vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said he feared that changes being made by the NHS in its effort to protect against the virus were now putting patients at far greater risk.
The A&E consultant said too great a reliance on “virtual” consultations, and policies encouraging patients to “phone first” before attending casualty units meant people were being denied basic care.
Dr Moulton said: “My worry is that a number of organisations, including the NHS, are using Covid as a reason to distance themselves from people and that carries risks.”
Policies which ask patients to phone A&E before they attend – currently being piloted by the NHS – will make it harder for many to access care, he warned.
“The last thing [you want] when you are in an emergency is to make a phone call; if you’ve chopped your fingers off you don’t want to phone before you go,” said Dr Moulton, an A&E consultant at Bolton NHS Foundation trust.
“I worry that under the guise of a post-Covid world we are making it harder and harder for people – especially the elderly – to access hospital and GP care, making people navigate online and with videos.”
Weekly figures show the number of people testing positive for coronavirus has declined for the first time in six weeks, despite an increase in tests. Only 6,115 positive cases were recorded by NHS Test and Trace across England between August 13 and 19, down from 6,616 in the previous week.
Medics in some hospitals said that they had been left “at near standstill” because of changes introduced by the NHS in response to Covid.
Rod Hughes, consultant rheumatologist at St Peter’s Hospital, in Surrey, said he was “working in a medical version of the Mary Celeste” because so few face-to-face clinics were being run.
An NHS spokesman said: “Actually, elective surgery has already rebounded from around 30 per cent of its usual rate during the peak of Covid when hospitals were looking after 108,000 coronavirus inpatients, to over 60 per cent earlier this month, and is steadily increasing beyond that.
“As for emergency services, we agree with the new leadership of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine that Covid means safe alternatives are needed to A&E overcrowding.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are supporting the NHS to safely restore urgent and non-urgent services and it is vital all those who need medical care come forwards to get help.”