New figures from NHS blood and transplant show this year there were a total of 265 transplant operations from April 1st until 31st May compared to 702 for the same period last year. Some centres closed completely, others ran a skeleton emergency service, and many patients were told they had been temporarily suspended from the waiting list. All living donations were cancelled due to the potential risk of catching the virus to the donor while deceased organ transplants continued at reduced levels.
The number of lung transplants fell from 40 at the same time last year down to five, liver transplants dropped from 149 to 73 and the number of heart transplants dropped from 22 to 20.
Kidney transplants dropped from 361 last year to 165 this year.
Experts say the NHS staff and equipment being given over to focus on treating coronavirus, together with the added risk of carrying out transplant operations on patients where infection control could not be guaranteed partly explain the fall in transplant operations.
There was also an unexplained drop in donors.
The news has raised concerns about the collateral impact of the pandemic on other NHS patients, many of whom needed life saving interventions.
Leading transplant expert, Nadey Hakim, Professor of transplant surgery at Imperial College, London and counsellor for the Transplantation Society, said: “Patients should have been offered the choice to have a transplant if they could have had one knowing all the risks.
“But no one wants to take responsibility for the risk. Patients will have died as a result of this and unfortunately this is not fair. The NHS shut down because of the pandemic and these patients are part of the collateral damage.”
Peter Friend, Professor of Transplantation and Director of the Oxford Transplant Centre said: “There have been a lot of transplants that were not been done that we would have done under normal circumstances – but we were operating in a period of uncertainty and we had to make decisions about when risk was reasonable for individual patients.
“Transplant waiting list paitents have been disadvantaged by the Covid pandemic – and some may never receive a transplant as a result.
“This has been a vital learning experience and we need to plan for the future, for example, how to run the national service more flexibly so that patients in higher Covid risk areas could be treated in lower Covid risk areas.
“We now need to adapt as quickly as possible to the changing NHS circumstances, because for every transplant that does not go ahead, a patient suffers or even dies as a result.”
Dr Nick Torpey a consultant kidney transplant surgeon at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, which kept services running said: “Every NHS service operates on a knife age and close to the limits in care and it doesn’t take much to expose its fragilities as this pandemic has done. The key to services to capacity again is rigorous and robust infection control.
“We were lucky to have had our own PCR point of care testing so we could get covid-19 results back within three hours.”
Natasha Tiwari, 34, a singer from Stoke Newington, north London has been told she may need her leg amputated because her kidney dialysis strips calcium from her bones which have not been able to heal as a result.
Ms Tiwari has been in a cast since she broke her leg in a fall in January 2018 but the bones in her ankle have not mended and are now crumbling due to this side effect of dialysis.
She says her chances of getting a donor have been severely reduced since all live transplants were stopped during the lockdown pandemic.
She said: “I was about to crowdfund for a living donor, but I’ve had to cancel that option. My chances of getting a transplant are so much less because of this and I fear I will lose my limb.
“Doctors say I should have had an organ by now and this would save my leg but because of the pandemic I fear this will now not happen.”
Ms Tiwari’s kidneys failed in 2002 due to a rare allergic reaction to insulin drug that she was given for type 1 diabetes.
She was given a transplant in February 2008 which failed six years later in April 2014.
Professor John Forsythe, Medical Director for Organ Donation at NHS Blood and Transplant said: “We know this remains a very worrying time for anyone waiting for an organ transplant.
“We are pleased with a great team effort across the NHS, we have been able to keep some forms of donation and transplantation open for highly urgent patients throughout the Covid crisis…We are now seeing more transplant units opening back up, with 12 of 23 kidney centres now open and we now expect more to open in swift succession.