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In our response to the UK Government’s Health and Social Care Select Committee Inquiry into delivering core NHS and care services during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, our submission explained how to address the balance between COVID-19 and ordinary health and care needs and how to transform adaptions created out of necessity into innovative everyday best practice.


Back in May, we highlighted the great work rheumatology departments had undertaken to adapt services and prioritise their caseloads. However, we also stressed some of the key issues that needed to be addressed to ensure rheumatology services were equipped to care for their patients. We're pleased to report that many of these points have been picked up by the Committee in their report findings:


Widespread COVID-19 testing


We highlighted the need for widespread COVID-19 testing for NHS staff to allow for face-to-face consultations, and the safe return of patients to rheumatology clinics.


Identifying patients for shielding


We also highlighted the challenges in identifying patients to shield. We're aware that due to pressure on teams at the time that departments struggled to screen patients, as was the intention. The UK-wide and national variations in IT systems and lack of outpatient coding meant that rheumatology departments could not quickly identify appropriate patients for shielding.


Patients must be informed about their care plans through regular contact, advice and reassurance: we stressed that this presents a capacity issue for many rheumatology departments who don't have the means to communicate with patients on this scale.


Now, in October 2020, many rheumatology services are operating at 10-50% capacity. Patients have had their appointments delayed or cancelled; a position the UK Government’s Health and Social Care Select Committee Inquiry acknowledges in newly published report findings.


The restoration of non-COVID-19-related services must now be prioritised and the British Society for Rheumatology supports the report's recommendation calling on the Department of Health and Social Care to provide an update on what plans are being put in place to quantify and address the overall impact of the pandemic on waiting times, the backlog of appointments and pent-up, and as yet unknown and unmet, patient demand for all health services. You can read more on this in our statement on restoring services post-COVID-19.


BSR Chief Executive Ali Rivett says: “At the time of our submission to the UK Government’s Health and Social Care Select Committee Inquiry, rheumatology services across the four nations were operating on average around 30% of their pre-COVID-19 capacity. Rheumatology patient assessment relies heavily on physical examination. Opening up and prioritising clinic space to rheumatology multidisciplinary teams are quick, simple and effective steps to manage the waiting times and backlog of appointments.


"We're a long way off from resuming normal capacity levels but today we also recognise that the recommendation from MPs calling for weekly testing for NHS staff is another positive step in the right direction.”