Cancer patients infected with coronavirus in England are becoming seriously ill after they were unable to access antibody or antiviral medicines on the NHS.
Ministers have promised to provide early treatment for 1.3 million people whose immune systems mean they are at higher risk of severe disease, hospitalisation or death. The treatments include the monoclonal antibody sotrovimab (Xevudy) and the antiviral medicines nirmatrelvir and ritonavir (Paxlovid), remdesivir (Veklury), and molnupiravir (Lagevrio).
However, the Guardian has been told that while many patients are benefiting from the treatments, others are struggling to access them. Some have become critically ill as a result. Health charities say red tape and a lack of clear guidance have led to “mass confusion” and anxiety among some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Kate Keightley, the head of support services at Blood Cancer UK, said: “The new treatments are a really important step forward in keeping people with blood cancer safe, and we’ve heard about many people who have accessed them with no problem. But we are hearing from people who are struggling to access them despite clearly being eligible. While it was understandable that there were teething problems when these treatments were rolled out in January, it is deeply disappointing that there are still significant issues with the system three months on.
“Every day, we are speaking to people with blood cancer who have got Covid and are scared about what might happen. The last thing they need is the additional stress of chasing the NHS for the treatments, and in many cases anxiously waiting for a call that does not come.
“We also know of some people who have run out of time to get the treatments and then gone on to become seriously ill. Particularly with the infection rate so high, the government and the NHS need to urgently focus on this to make sure everyone who is eligible is communicated with and can get access to these treatments.”
Phillip Anderson, the head of policy at the MS Society, said: “The government justified their decision to strip 1.3 million people – who are at higher risk of severe illness from Covid – of all safety measures by saying they still have the lifeline of antivirals. The reality is very different, and we’re hearing from people with MS who are getting sent packs of lateral flow tests with absolutely no explanation what they’re for, while others are unaware they can’t use a private test to register for antivirals now. Failing to communicate these vitally important changes to accessing them, and believing their last lot of rushed-out guidance would suffice, has simply led to mass confusion.”
Prof Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, said that given the record Covid infection levels, the government should consider expanding the number of people being offered antivirals. “Personally, I think I there is a case for giving antivirals to anyone over 75,” he said. “These are people who are at higher risk of severe disease than younger people, even in the absence of other risk factors.”
NHS England said the treatments were available to all eligible patients and tens of thousands had benefited from them. A spokesperson said: “The NHS is continuing to support GPs, NHS 111 and hospitals to make sure eligible patients can access urgent assessments through Covid-19 medicine delivery units, which enable patients to be treated seven days a week.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it had secured more antivirals per capita than any other country in Europe, adding: “Those at highest risk from Covid-19, including people who are immunocompromised, can access antivirals directly and should call NHS 111 or their GP if they haven’t been contacted by the NHS.”