Nearly 30,000 surgical patients caught Covid in hospital, with one in five dying – a death rate 25 times higher than usual, new figures show.

Researchers from Queen Mary, University of London and Swansea University found that among 2.6 million patients who underwent surgery last year, 28,777 were diagnosed with the virus during or immediately after their hospital stay, with 6,153 dying within 90 days.

The study found that 21.4 per cent of those who caught Covid died, compared to just 0.8 per cent of surgical patients who were not infected. Patients undergoing elective surgery for conditions such as a knee replacement or a hernia who became infected were 25 times more likely to die. 

The authors concluded that although just 1.1 per cent of all surgical patients became infected, it highlighted the importance of infection prevention policies.

Dr Tom Abbott, of Queen Mary University of London, said: "The high mortality amongst patients who acquire Covid-19 at the time of their surgery indicates that the current procedures and precautions must remain in place to safeguard our patients."

The research also found that more than 1.5 million operations were cancelled or postponed at hospitals across England and Wales last year. It is the first national study to measure the impact of the pandemic on NHS surgery. 

The authors calculate that the overall shortfall will increase to 2.4 million cancelled operations by the end of 2021, with millions more patients feeling the impact in the future. 

There were 108,000 fewer emergency operations for conditions such as broken legs, bleeds on the brain and appendicitis, as well as 900,000 fewer semi-urgent operations for such problems as skin cancer, burn reconstruction or gall bladder removal. 

Dr Tom Dobbs, of Swansea University Medical School, said: "The interruption of surgical treatment detailed in our research will be felt by millions of patients for many years to come.

"Delays in the diagnosis and surgical management of cancer patients will lead to an increase in deaths, while those waiting for semi-urgent and elective surgery are likely to experience a worsening of their condition, with some procedures made more problematic and less likely to succeed."

The study was published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, whose editor-in-chief, Prof Hugh Hemmings, said: "This important research is the first to lay out in operational detail the extent of disruption and long-term ramifications caused by the pandemic at a national level in the UK.

"These landmark findings make it clear that the negative impact of cancelled surgery will continue to be felt by patients for years."