GP referrals to secondary care were down by nearly a third (30%) in March, new NHS England data has shown.
There were 1,220,636 new GP referrals into consultant-led care during March this year, compared with 1,741,49 recorded in March 2019.
NHS Digital data for March had previously indicated that the number of GP appointments had also declined by 30% in the month when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the country.
Today also saw the publication of the latest monthly performance statistics for A&E, covering the month of April, which saw the lowest attendance number on record.
A total of 916,581 people attended any A&E unit in England during that period – a low not otherwise seen since current records began in August 2010.
As well as being a 57% reduction from the same period in 2019, it is in stark contrast to last July, when 2,266,913 people visited English A&E departments – the highest-ever July figure.
According to the Health Foundation, today’s data is reflective of the ‘seismic impact’ Covid-19 is posing on how the public uses NHS services.
Senior fellow Tim Gardner said: ‘This unprecedented shift in the way people are using health services – while it does ease the immediate pressures on the NHS – is a major concern and could mean that potentially urgent health problems are going undiagnosed or chronic problems are getting worse.
‘Understandably people may be fearful or not wish to use NHS services at this time, but if people are not accessing the care they need we risk storing up higher levels of health problems for the future.’
The news comes as previous reports showed urgent suspected cancer referrals reduced by more than 70% in various areas of the UK. Cancer treatment has now been identified as a priority amid the NHS’ restoration of non-Covid services.
Speaking in a recent GP webinar, NHS England director for primary care strategy and NHS contracts Ed Waller said: ‘We have seen a drop in referrals in the system in the last few weeks that we obviously need to reverse – particularly on things like two-week potential cancer referral waits.
‘We would just make a plea that if anybody is still experiencing difficulty in making referrals and their acceptance in local trusts, if you could let us know then we will try our best to follow that through. Or you could follow that up through your CCG and local regional team as an alternative.’
Trusts have been given ‘a clear message’ that they should be accepting referrals, he added.
In response to the reduction in usage of services, GPs including NHS England’s medical director for primary care Dr Nikki Kanani and RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall have been reiterating the message that the ‘NHS is open’.