A poll of members by the Medical Protection Society (MPS) found that 43% of doctors fear investigation if patients come to harm because of delays to referrals and reduced NHS services during the pandemic.
Treatment has been delayed for millions of patients while the NHS has focused on managing the pandemic - with GPs in many areas still unable to refer as normal and even urgent referrals delayed while the UK has been in lockdown. The NHS Confederation has warned that 10m people could be on NHS waiting lists by Christmas.
Reduced NHS services during the pandemic have left even patients who need urgent treatment or scans for cancer waiting longer. GPonline reported in April that patients had been waiting more than a month for urgent cancer checks - and Cancer Research UK warned in May that 2.4m patients were waiting longer for scans or treatment because of disruption to services during the pandemic.
Polling by the BMA last month found that more than half of doctors believed the COVID-19 pandemic had worsened care for patients without the virus, with concerns that erosion of routine NHS work could trigger a 'huge spike in demand' after the crisis.
The MPS has urged the government to 'commit adequate resource and support to clearing the backlog of referrals and delayed follow-ups in secondary care' to avoid a 'potential patient safety crisis and a tsunami of future claims and investigations'.
MPS medical director Dr Rob Hendry said: 'The need to reduce the number of patients attending healthcare facilities and the suspension of routine investigations and outpatient appointments has resulted in a large backlog of referrals across many specialities and in many centres.
'It will take some time for all services to be up and running normally. Covid-19 will continue to bring pressures and complications, compounded by the upcoming winter, and this is on top of the referral backlog.
'Buried within these many delayed referrals will be patients with serious conditions, not yet identified. For some, if diagnoses are missed or significantly delayed this could seriously impact those patients’ prognoses and outcomes. It’s not difficult to see how we could be facing another different kind of patient safety crisis.
'The prospect of an adverse outcome under these circumstances would be devastating for any patient, and the psychological impact on the already emotionally and physically exhausted doctors involved would be significant. Such situations may also give rise to a tsunami of medico-legal disputes, claims and investigations.'
The MPS said it had pressed the government to offer doctors great protection from investigations arising from 'impossible situations' during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A DHSC spokesperson said: 'Thanks to the hard work and dedication of NHS staff, hospitals were not overwhelmed during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
'Guidance has already been issued to the NHS on how they should start to restore urgent services in a safe way. We will continue to provide the resources, funding and support our health service needs.'