Hospital admissions for heart attacks dropped by a third across England when coronavirus took off in the UK and the nation went into lockdown, say researchers in The Lancet journal.
By the end of May, 5,000 fewer people than expected were seen and treated for urgent heart symptoms, they estimate.
The study authors say some avoidable deaths may have occurred as a result.
A heart attack is a medical emergency – people with symptoms should call 999, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
- a tightness or crushing pain travelling from the chest into the arms, jaw or neck
- shortness of breath
Experts suspect coronavirus fear and anxiety may have put some patients off seeking urgent help.
From mid-February and throughout March 2020 – when cases of coronavirus started to affect the UK – there were about 2,000 hospital admissions for suspected heart attacks and angina a week.
Admissions started to rise during April and May 2020 but were still below the 2019 average, of 3,000.
Lead study author Dr Marion Mafham, from the University of Oxford, said: “Our study shows that far fewer people with heart attacks have attended hospital during this pandemic.
“It is important that anyone with chest pain calls an ambulance immediately, because every minute of delay increases the risk of dying or experiencing serious complications from a heart attack.”
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, from the British Heart Foundation, said: “Prompt treatment for your heart attack could save your life.
“So if you think you are experiencing symptoms, call 999 immediately.”.
NHS national clinical director for heart disease Nick Linker said: “NHS staff pulled out all the stops to treat over 100,000 people for coronavirus in hospitals during the pandemic.
“But they also made sure that everyone who needed urgent and emergency treatment for other conditions – including for heart attacks and strokes – could get it in a safe way.
“While it’s good news that since the peak more people are now coming forward with heart problems, and A&E visits are closer to usual levels, our message to the public continues to be heart attacks are a medical emergency and can be fatal, so help us help you, and call 999 right away.”