Patients who need blood tests in Redbridge and Havering can expect long waits until mid-January as the local NHS struggles to cope with a huge backlog caused by the coronavirus.
A “serious incident” was declared last month as patients faced waiting months for tests, following the decision to stop offering them at local hospitals, except for in-patients.
Those needing tests, including cancer patients and diabetics, were forced to go to a dwindling number of over-stretched community clinics, with many directed as far as Loughton.
A spokesperson for the clinical commissioning group (CCG) which decides how NHS money is spent in Redbridge and Havering said patients still face waits of up to 16 weeks.
Redbridge Council’s health scrutiny committee criticised the handling of the crisis on Thursday November 5, particularly how decisions were made without consulting the council.
Cllr Beverley Brewer (Lab, South Woodford) said: “I have to ask how things were allowed to get to such a bad position.
“If the CCG were taking things ‘very seriously’, why did they allow 18-week waits to develop in the first place?”
Committee chair Cllr Neil Zammett (Lab, Goodmayes) added: “I do not understand why (the hospitals) were allowed to pull the plug on their (blood testing) service.
“It must have been obvious to everyone that, if they did, they were going to create a crisis.
“We do need to make sure the people who made these decisions are held to account and that they are not made in future. How much more do they have to close before somebody steps in?”
CCG director Tracey Welsh said Redbridge and Havering were worse affected by the pandemic than other parts of east London because there is less funding for primary care in Gps.
She said: “Services, in essence, closed down for a number of months due to COVID-19. It does not take long for a backlog to build up.
“In the past two weeks, (that backlog has reduced) from more than 40,000 to just over 25,000.”
She added that patients with “urgent tests”, such as those for people with suspected cancer, received them within two weeks, with many tested within one week.
She said the serious incident was declared “purely to be able to get system support” from NHS England, which is being used to add staff and open extra sites, including “super clinics” on weekends and evenings.
The new sites are opening in South Woodford, Hainault and Seven Kings and will stay open until “at least April 1” next year.
The CCG is also temporarily shutting sites with waits of more than 18 weeks to stop patients waiting months when they could be tested faster somewhere else. It has only had to close one clinic for this reason so far.
Cathay Turland, CEO of scrutiny body Healthwatch Redbridge, said the closures were “sensible” but that some patients are “very frightened of travelling” given their risk from Covid.
Another concern was raised after patients from the west of Redbridge reported being refused blood tests by Leytonstone doctors because Redbridge’s CCG “had not paid their bills”.
Heather Noble, medical director for Waltham Forest’s NHS Trust, said they “apologise unreservedly for that”, confirming the claim was untrue.
She said: “My best guess is that there was idle gossip that someone picked up as truth. It was completely unprofessional to say. Even if it was true, they should not have said it.”
An investigation into whether any patients were harmed by the delay in blood tests is currently underway.