But Professor Turner warned there has also been an invisible cost in terms of human misery.
“On top of that there is the huge hidden problem of patients not being referred to us because of the impact of the pandemic. Referrals are down 50 per cent from normal levels,” he said.
“This was because the NHS’s resources were directed towards the pandemic, which was right at the time. Unfortunately, the NHS had no choice but to focus everything on Covid because it was already running at full capacity due to years of efficiencies and would otherwise have simply not coped. But it now means we have all these patients stacked up waiting for treatment.”
Prof. Turner, who is the senior orthopaedic surgeon at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, Greater Manchester, said: “We have managed to carry on providing services to patients with trauma, such as fractured bones and hips. So if you break your leg falling out of the pub on a Saturday night, you will have been treated during the pandemic.
“But everything else, other than the highest priority – such as patients with cancer or infections – just stopped. Routine work just came to a halt.”
Professor Turner, a former president of the British Orthopaedic Association who specialises in all aspects of knee surgery, said the effect on patients is “very serious”.
He said: “They are clearly in pain and it gets worse as time goes on. They become immobile, which means if they are of working age they can no longer work, or find it harder and harder to. If they are elderly then the isolation they have suffered as a result of Covid gets worse as they cannot get out and about.
“On top of that is the problem of increased use of painkillers. When the pain gets severe there is a need for opiate based painkillers, which have serious side effects.
“Then, when patients are eventually admitted, they are in worse health for having waited so long, which means their recovery period may well be longer. Also, there is a need for more complex surgery because of the time spent waiting for treatment.”
At Prof Turner’s hospital, Stepping Hill in Stockport, the total orthopaedic waiting list at the end of February was 629. By the end of July it was 1,022, even though referrals were 50 per cent less than normal.
Prof Turner said that all work around non-urgent cases stopped in the last week of March, and only started again in the second week of July. That meant that it took until July 15 for him to perform his first knee operation in more than 17 weeks.
“This has been terribly frustrating for patients, but also for surgeons like myself and other medical staff who want to get on and treat those who need treatment.
“During the height of the pandemic, many of us have been sitting around twiddling our thumbs I’m afraid. We thought we would be re-trained for ITU in order to help deal with Covid patients, but that just didn’t happen.”
Prof Turner warned that tackling the country’s long waiting lists would be no quick or easy task.
“We are now busier than we were as we’ve started operating again and carrying out clinical work, re-assessing patients on our waiting lists,” he said.
“It’s taking a long time to get the restart of the NHS going. Hospitals are still geared up for Covid, with 40 per cent less theatre space because of distancing and PPE protocols.
“It is going to take a long time to get back to even the February 2020 waiting list levels – perhaps two years, let alone cutting waiting lists to less than 100,000.”