Deaths from the most common type of heart attack soared by almost 40 per cent during the coronavirus lockdown, according to research.
Analysis by University of Leeds experts found hospital admissions for heart attacks plummeted by 50 per cent in April and May in England.
The data also suggested that deaths rose from the most mild form of heart attack, which is usually treatable if patients are given quick medical attention.
Scientists behind the study say lots of very ill people appear to have been reluctant to seek help despite suffering life-threatening symptoms.
This may have been an unintended consequence of the government’s ‘Stay at Home’ messaging, according to lead author of the study, statistician Dr Jianhua Wu.
Some patients will have been too scared to go to hospital in case they got the virus, while others wouldn’t have wanted to be a burden on the health service.
Experts estimated around 2,000 fewer patients were treated for heart attacks during lockdown — despite them being classed as a medical emergency by the NHS.
The UK locked down on March 23 to try to bring the exponentially growing epidemic under control.
Ministers were praised for their simple and effective slogan, ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’.
But independent scientists reacting to the findings today said No 10 should learn to be ‘more nuanced’ in its communications in future.
The research, published in the European Heart Journal Quality of Care and Clinical Outcomes, examined data on hospital admissions for 99 hospitals in England.
Statisticians compared heart attack admissions in the two months of lockdown with pre-Covid-19 levels.
The number of patients who suffered a STEMI heart attack — the most serious and life-threatening kind — was down by 49 per cent during lockdown.
ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI) heart attacks are caused by a complete blockage of one of the blood vessels that takes oxygen to the heart.
Patients who suffer from STEMI heart attacks can suffer irreparable damage to the heart muscle, which can shave years off their lives.
Overall, the fewest heart attack admissions were recorded on April 19, when the 99 hospitals recorded just 60 admissions — they would normally expect to see around 104.
Hospital admissions for NSTEMI heart attacks — the most common form of heart attack caused by a partial blockage — were down by 29 per cent.
But the proportion of patients who had an NSTEMI heart attack in the first month of the lockdown and died within 30 days later went from 5.4 per cent to 7.5 per cent — a 39 per cent rise.
It suggests some patients who went to hospital for the initial heart attack were reluctant to return again.
Dr Wu said: ‘Although patients were able to get access to high levels of care, the study suggests a lot of very ill people were not seeking emergency treatment and that may have been an unintended consequence of the “Stay at Home” messaging.’
Professor Chris Gale, senior author, added: ‘This national picture provides evidence for the devastating impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on people’s lives.
‘The inflation in deaths among people attending hospital with heart attack is very likely an early signal of the mortality and morbidity that is yet to be observed.
‘Notably, we have not seen a return to the normal rates of admissions with heart attack. This means that people may still be delaying seeking help.’
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘We know that throughout lockdown fewer people were treated for a heart attack, risking death or long-term heart damage.
‘If you experience chest pain or discomfort, which may feel like squeezing or heaviness or tightness, not necessarily the chest-clutching agony that we see on TV, and which may radiate to your jaw, arm, back or stomach, it’s important to understand you could be having a heart attack.
‘Prompt treatment for your heart attack could save your life, so if you think you are experiencing symptoms call 999 immediately.’
Independent scientists reacting to the study hailed its findings as ‘high-quality data’ but warned people against drawing hard and fast conclusions.
Steve Goodacre, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Sheffield, said: ‘The research appears to have been competently performed and uses a well-respected database.
‘It is an observational study so we can only use the data to describe what is happening. It can’t tell us why something is happening. So it tells us that hospitals admitted fewer people with heart attacks after lockdown, but it can’t tell us why.
It also tells us that death rates were higher in those admitted with a common type of heart attack but it can’t tell us what happened to the people who would normally have been admitted with this type of heart attack but were not admitted. In general, we have to be careful that we don’t overstate what this sort of study can tell us.’
Professor Robert Storey, a cardiologist at the University of Sheffield, added: ‘These high-quality data show clearly the effect that COVID-19 and the lockdown had on heart attack patients: people were less likely to attend hospital and this led to more deaths due to heart attack.
‘This fits with the perceptions of cardiologists in many affected countries and so was not just a UK phenomenon. Indeed this risk of people with heart attacks not seeking help from the NHS when necessary was recognised at the start of the lockdown.
‘When patients attended hospital, it seems the quality of care was not affected by the pandemic. There are clear lessons to learn from this, an important one being that advice on staying at home should be nuanced so as not to discourage people with symptoms of heart attack or stroke from seeking help from the emergency services and attending hospital as necessary.’