Nearly 100,000 people have died needlessly from heart attack and stroke since the start of the pandemic, according to a report.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) said the ongoing disruption to the NHS and the fallout from Covid has left the country in the ‘throes of a heart and stroke care emergency’.
The analysis of official data showed that as of March 2020 there have been more deaths related to cardiovascular disease than any other disease – with 96,540.
It means there have been more than 500 extra deaths per week since the start of the pandemic above what would be expected for heart disease.
The charity has called for heart care to be urgently prioritised, while also taking steps to reduce growing preventive risk factors such as obesity.
Excess deaths in England with cardiovascular disease (any death certificate entry), compared to deaths where the underlying cause was Covid and where cardiovascular disease was also reported on the death certificate. Red line refers to extra deaths with CVD. Blue lines represent deaths where the underlying cause was Covid, and where CVD was also listed on the death certificate
Bernie Lawrence, 74, from Farnborough, Hampshire, worries he wouldn’t survive if he had a heart attack in 2023
Dr. Charmaine Griffiths, general manager of the BHF, said: It is deeply disturbing that so many more people have died from cardiovascular disease in the last three years.
“For years it has been clear that we are firmly in the grip of a heart and stroke healthcare crisis.
“If little changes, we could continue to see a sustained rise in cardiovascular death rates that negates decades of scientific progress to reduce the number of people who die from heart attack or stroke.”
Retired sales manager, 74, fears he would die if he had a heart attack because of NHS condition
Bernie Lawrence, 74, from Farnborough, Hampshire, is worried he wouldn’t survive if he had a heart attack in 2023.
In 2018, the retired sales manager went to the emergency room at Frimley Park Hospital with severe chest pain and was diagnosed with angina – chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart muscle.
The next day, he had a special type of X-ray called an angiogram that showed he had disease in his coronary arteries and was at significant risk of a life-threatening heart attack. Just nine days after being admitted to the hospital with chest pains, he was on the operating table having quadruple heart bypass surgery.
Bernie said: ‘When I ended up in hospital with angina in 2018, the doctor said I could have had a heart attack, collapse and die if I had exerted myself any more. Fortunately, my condition was discovered at a time when the NHS was working well and waiting lists were manageable. I don’t want to think about what would happen if I got angina or a heart attack right now, and I think about that a lot. I’m convinced I wouldn’t survive.’
Mr Lawrence said his experience of NHS heart care in 2023 was very different from three years earlier. While on holiday on New Year’s Eve 2022, he called 111 and was told to go to the emergency room at Gloucester Royal Hospital as his heart was beating faster and he was feeling dizzy.
No A&E beds were available, so he was treated in the corridor during his 27-hour stay and diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF). He was told he needed an “urgent” scan of his heart called an echocardiogram, but after waiting four months he chose to have it done privately due to the toll on his mental health.
He said: ‘My experience with the NHS this year has been awful. When I entered the ER on New Year’s Eve, it felt like a war zone with hundreds of people waiting to be treated—some even on IVs. It was standing room only. I really felt sorry for the NHS staff who were rushed off their feet – that’s an understatement.
“When I was discharged from the hospital, I was very concerned about my diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, but I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I didn’t feel safe. After more than three months, my echocardiogram had not even been triggered. It is not the fault of doctors, nurses or paramedics. They do what they can with very few resources. But something is very broken, and it has taken a psychological toll on me. I just feel so sad that I’ve had to look elsewhere and be forced to go private for the service we used to get and should get on the NHS.’
More than half of the excess CVD deaths occurred during the first year of the pandemic, with Covid known to cause significant heart and circulatory problems.
Data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) showed that in the second year, between 2021/March 22, they fell dramatically, but recovered in the same period last year.
Experts said ongoing disruption to NHS heart care is likely behind the spike, with record waiting lists and disruption from strikes leading to further treatment delays.
This is on top of the extra increased risk of heart attack and stroke caused by Covid.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the BHF and Consultant Cardiologist, said: “Covid-19 no longer fully explains the high number of excess deaths from cardiovascular disease. Other important factors are likely to contribute, including the extreme and unrelenting pressure on the NHS in recent years.
“Long waits for heart care are dangerous — they put a person at increased risk for avoidable hospitalization, disability from heart failure, and premature death. Yet people are struggling to get potentially life-saving heart treatments when they need them due to a lack of NHS staff and space, despite cardiovascular disease affecting a record number of people.’
The number of people waiting for time-sensitive heart care hit a record high of nearly 390,000 at the end of April, the latest figures show.
While ambulance response times have improved since the 90-minute low in December 2022, average wait times consistently exceeded 30 minutes last year.
Meanwhile, detection rates of conditions that put people at higher risk of disease have fallen.
Figures from NHS England show that 2 million fewer people were registered with controlled hypertension in 2021 compared to the previous year.
Research has shown that people with no pre-existing heart disease who contracted Covid prior to the vaccine rollout were 40 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, while those who experienced a serious infection were at a higher risk.
Professor John Greenwood, president of the British Cardiovascular Society, said the figures are ‘worrying, but unfortunately not surprising’.
He said: ‘We know that Covid has caused direct (Covid leads to new CVD), indirect (reduced treatment and prevention of CVD) and long-term effects (CVD and Long Covid).
“The BCS recommends urgent prioritization of CVD prevention and treatment, as well as an increase in the cardiovascular workforce (primary and secondary care and multidisciplinary team) to address work backlogs and long waiting lists for treatment. In addition, we need a strong public health strategy from the government to promote healthy behaviors and prevent heart disease in the first place.”
A government spokesman said: ‘We are cutting waiting lists, ambulance response times are getting shorter, staff are increasing and we are improving access to blood pressure and health checks.
“We know there’s more to do, so we’re discussing a strategy for key conditions to address cardiovascular disease – including stroke and diabetes – and we’ve opened 108 community diagnostic centers that have more than 4 million tests, scans and checkups.” have provided, including for those with cardiovascular disease.
‘The government is also working with NHS England to fight some causes of cardiovascular disease, with programs to support more physical activity, reduce obesity and encourage people to stop smoking.’