Across Sussex, the number of A&E visits has fallen by as much as a third at some NHS trusts – mirroring the trend across England.
In a Downing Street press conference last Monday, health secretary Matt Hancock expressed alarm at the decline in people going to A&Es.
He said: “If you are worried about chest pains, for instance, maybe you might be having a heart attack or a stroke, or you feel a lump and you are worried about cancer, or you are a parent concerned about your child, please come forward and seek help as you always would.”
Last week, the NHS in England began a new public information campaign to persuade people to use the health service when they need it.
Seeking medical help is one of the four reasons that people are allowed to leave home, in line with government guidance.
In England, attendances at A&Es fell by nearly a third in March, compared with March 2019 – from 2.1 million to 1.5 million.
NHS England expects there to be one million fewer patients this April than last – a drop of about half.
In West Sussex, attendance at A&E departments run by the Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust fell by 24 per cent, according to figures from NHS England. A total of 12,742 people visited A&Es at the trust during March 2019, compared to 9,688 this March.
The MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, Tim Loughton, said in his latest newsletter to constituents that Worthing Hospital had worked well with the county council to make sure that as many critical care beds as possible had been made available to deal with coronavirus admissions.
“As a result bed occupancy at Worthing is below 60 per cent and it is important that those people who need to go to hospital for non-coronavirus conditions continue to do so,” he wrote.
On its website, the trust confirmed its A&E was ‘open as normal’ and had the capacity to treat emergency patients.
However, people should attend on their own if possible or, if they need help, should bring only one other person.
Similarly, in East Sussex, hospitals run by the East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust saw A&E attendance fall by 26 per cent, from 11,387 in March 2019 to 8,439 this March.
Dr David Walker, medical director at the trust, said there was no need for people to be anxious about visiting emergency departments if they needed help.
He said: “Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, we have seen a drop off in urgent and emergency hospital attendances, for example new referrals for cancer, and people presenting with heart attacks and strokes.
“Some parents are not bringing their sick children to hospital and some pregnant women are not attending if they have concerns about their pregnancy.
“We know that many people are worried about putting extra pressure on the NHS during the coronavirus outbreak, but if you are seriously unwell, we still want to see you.”
The biggest fall in A&E admissions in the county was recorded at the Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust, which saw attendance in March fall by 33 per cent when compared to last year.
The trust runs an Urgent Treatment Centre in Crawley and Minor Injury Units in both Bognor Regis and Horsham, both of which have remained operational for their usual opening hours throughout the pandemic.
A spokesman said the reduction in the number of visits witnessed was ‘in line with what has happened across the UK’.
“We have implemented social distancing measures at our units and continue to ask people who are showing symptoms of coronavirus not to attend but to call NHS 111 instead,” a spokesman said.
“However, for people not showing symptoms of coronavirus it is important that they seek medical help when they need it and our urgent treatment centres and minor injury units remain open and fully staffed to provide care.”
In Brighton, the number of people who attended A&E departments run by Brighton And Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust has fallen by 30 per cent.
Meanwhile at hospitals run by the Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, the number of people attending A&E departments has fallen by 26 per cent.
Michael Wilson CBE, chief executive of Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, said: “We have worked hard to ensure we have the right processes in place to care for people with suspected coronavirus as well as those with other conditions.
“We follow strict infection control guidelines, so if you need emergency care you should continue to access care as you usually would.
“This means if you need medical help from your GP practice, contact them either online, by an app or by phone to be assessed. If you need urgent medical help, use the NHS 111 online service, or call 111. If it’s a serious or life-threatening emergency, call 999.”
Delaying treatment could lead to more serious issues
People are risking their lives by avoiding emergency departments during the coronavirus crisis, charities have warned.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, warned that delaying treatment in an emergency could leave people with far more serious health problems.
She said: “We know that the number of people attending hospital with symptoms of a heart attack has dropped by 50 per cent, and the number of people attending with stroke has also fallen dramatically.
“Heart attacks and strokes are medical emergencies and treating them remains a top priority for the NHS.
“Research has led to several effective treatments for heart attacks, but if you delay, you are more likely to suffer serious heart damage and more likely to need intensive care and to spend longer in hospital.”
Dr Babu-Narayan added that delaying treatment for a stroke ‘could leave you with a disability that could have been avoided’.
“People should not let fear of the coronavirus, or of being a burden to a hospital, deter them calling 999 when they suffer heart attack or stroke symptoms,” she said.
A spokesman for NHS England echoed her calls and said: “Anybody who needs urgent help – including people experiencing heart failure and stroke or expectant mums worried about their baby – should absolutely come forward and seek help from their local NHS.”
“There is no doubt that, as the chief medical officer said, coronavirus is putting more pressure on NHS services, but NHS staff are freeing up thousands more beds for critical care whilst also keeping other essential services running, so parents, relatives and anyone worried about their own health should continue to use their NHS.”
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