Patients in need of non-coronavirus-related emergency treatment have been urged to keep visiting hospitals amid a fall in A&E attendance numbers.
NHS England’s national medical director Stephen Powis encouraged people to seek help “just as you always have done”, emphasising that the NHS was there to support them.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, he said: “The NHS has worked night and day to surge capacity to manage coronavirus but it’s also there for you if you have symptoms of a stroke, symptoms of a heart attack.
“Indeed if you have any emergency condition, whether it’s a sick child, whether it’s a mother in pregnancy who’s worried about movements of the baby, you should be seeking emergency services just as you always have done.
“They are there for you and, although we are focusing on coronavirus, it’s important we continue to focus on other emergency conditions.”
His comments come as one senior medic warned that the lack of action to address the drop in people attending A&E for non-Covid-19 reasons was “deeply concerning”.
Dr Nick Scriven, former president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said that for the past three weeks doctors have been raising concerns over patients not seeking help for serious conditions soon enough.
This includes people suffering from pneumonia, heart attacks, strokes and blood clots, he said.
The Society for Acute Medicine said attendances at A&E departments had fallen by up to 50% and there were reports of patients waiting five or six days before seeking urgent treatment due to fears over coronavirus.
Dr Scriven said: “As Covid attendances have gone up, non-Covid attendances have reduced drastically and there has been growing concern among clinicians about people feeling sick at home but not coming to hospital as they are frightened and then coming to harm.”
Data that records the number of attendances at emergency departments in England by people with particular symptoms – such as respiratory, cardiac and influenza-like conditions – showed there were overall 89,584 attendances in the week to March 29.
The figure, published by Public Health England, marks a drop of more than 30,000 when compared to the 120,356 attendances in the week before.
In the first week of March, emergency department attendances reached 174,428 overall.
Dr Scriven called on health authorities to launch a national effort to address the problem of falling A&E attendances.
He said: “Clearly it is right that so much emphasis has been placed on people following the national advice to stay home and help prevent the spread of coronavirus, however, there is a responsibility to also balance that messaging appropriately.
“That, as of yet, hasn’t happened and it has been left to independent bodies to raise these concerns, but given the potential for significant harm, it requires central leadership and partnership working with representative bodies and patient groups.”
He said hospitals need to ensure emergency services remain open for all patients who are seriously unwell or may be unable to access their usual primary care services, or who have had outpatient clinic appointments cancelled.
Dr Scriven also urged people to avoid using “military rhetoric” when describing efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus.
“I really don’t feel terms such as fight, battle and war are helpful to anyone – in fact, I think they exacerbate people’s fears and probably fuel the “batten down the hatches” mindset which is being taken to far in some cases,” he explained.