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How will the NHS recover from Covid-19?

Back in 2019, the NHS introduced its Long Term Plan, a plan that would make the NHS fit for the present and the future so that it could continue to offer high-quality services to patients.

Nobody could have predicted the events of 2020, which saw the NHS completely turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. This has influenced the Long Term Plan, but not entirely to its detriment.

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The NHS is emerging from the biggest challenge it has ever faced. At the peak of the pandemic, daily Covid-19 admissions were hitting over 4,000, resulting in almost 40,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital.  As a result, the impact of Covid-19 has left no corner of the NHS unaffected. In February 2022, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported 6.07 million people were currently on a pre-planned treatment waiting list, the highest level since records began, and this figure doesn’t even account for the “hidden” backlog with projected numbers more like 13 million. 

Sitting alongside this key NHS number are many other metrics showing the wider impact of the pandemic on people’s ability to access healthcare. In February 2022, the UK Government reported that A&E attendance was 12% higher than it was ten years ago, and the number of patients waiting for cancer treatments for longer than 62 days has risen from 11,000 pre-pandemic to 27,618 in early January 2022

Beyond the patient perspective, the pandemic has had a sizeable workforce impact on the NHS. The Nursing Times reported over 150 nurse deaths involving Covid-19, and the British Medical Association remembered 50 doctors at a recent memorial service. In a study by The University of Manchester, frontline healthcare workers are living with the lasting physical and emotional effects of the relenting pressures of caring for those affected by the pandemic. The report highlighted that healthcare professionals are feeling: 

  • Significant ‘moral injury’ from not being able to deliver the standards of care they are used to. 
  • Burnout and exhaustion from both the pandemic and the pressure to deliver the backlog in NHS services. 
  • Undervalued having experienced abuse from the public. 

Staff shortages within the NHS are now a major concern with 110,000 unfilled vacancies in England alone required to continue delivery of life-saving surgery, emergency treatment and address the patient backlog. More than 400 workers are leaving the NHS every week, citing burnout following two years of battling Covid.  

Sitting outside of the confines of the healthcare system, the ripple effect of delayed access to treatment is expected to have a much wider economic impact, with increasing levels of absenteeism, reduced productivity and overall patient outcomes being affected. 

Covid-19 has brought some positive changes 

Whilst it’s easy to get caught up in the headlines and negative effects of the pandemic, the scale of innovation seen in the NHS has been a defining feature of its response to the crisis. These innovations include: 

  • Staff being redeployed, learning new skills, and adapting to very new roles. 
  • Patient services being delivered in new ways, such as via virtual outpatient appointments. 
  • Improved mental health and wellbeing services, supporting healthcare workers to cope with the relenting demands both mentally and emotionally. 
  • A greater use of technology for clinical purposes. 
  • Local organisations enhancing the way they work together. 

But where does the NHS go from here, and how long will it be till the effects of Covid start to ease?

In February 2022, the Government set out its NHS Elective Recovery Plan highlighting some key ambitions to reduce waiting times and address the backlog created by the pandemic. These include: 

  • Reduction of waiting lists to under a year by 2025. 
  • Aim to eliminate waits of over 18 months by 2023 and over 65 weeks by March 2024. 
  • Aim to restore diagnostics within six weeks to pre-pandemic levels by 2025. 
  • Creation of lists of reservist health workers to increase capacity. 
  • Roll out of 100 diagnostics centres and a network of 122 surgical hubs. 
  • A plan to improve the information and support for patients with a new online platform called My Planned Care.

It’s fair to say that the recovery will take time; the pandemic and its effects haven’t and won’t go away anytime soon, and the human recovery will be long and enduring. But we can all play our part in supporting the NHS whether that be personal responsibility for our own health, organisations continuing to offer adaptive working practices, or pioneering new medicines, treatments, and technology.

Medical research’s role in supporting the NHS’ recovery? 

We all know the incredible, collaborative, and innovative response from pharmaceutical companies to develop, trial and roll out mass Covid-19 vaccination programmes across the world. But the fight against Covid-19 continues and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) recently reported that more than 130 vaccines are currently in clinical development, and 332 treatment medicines are at various stages of development all with the aim of preventing and treating this disease in the future.

But as the Covid-19 pressure eases, and access to routine medicine recommences, the relenting demands on the NHS remain. The UK (United Kingdom) faces many health challenges with high rates of mortality from diseases including cancer, heart disease and dementia, coupled with an aging population. Therefore, new technologies, drug innovation, and preventative treatments will all play a key part in tackling these, and many other diseases, and aid the NHS in its own recovery.

As new medical innovations are developed, GKA can provide organisations with access to highly-engaged patients and medical professionals providing insights from the frontline and real-world perspectives. Whether high volume or niche recruitment, qualitative or quantitative approaches, specialist moderation, or analysis and report development, our highly experienced team can support you. For more information, or to request a quote please contact Charlotte Cullen on +44(0)1242 248304 or email

Want to know more?

Looking for further information and advice about what this means for medical market research? GKA engages directly with HCPs at the front line of these digital transformation programmes. Contact the team to discuss how we can connect innovative practitioners to your upcoming research projects.