SCOTLAND’S top doctor has urged people not to ignore other health problems during the coronavirus epidemic after a mystery surge in deaths unrelated to the infection.

Interim chief medical officer Dr Gregor Smith said there was a “disconcerting” lack of people presenting with other conditions, leaving the NHS feeling “eerily quiet”.

He warned there were “huge risks” in people ignoring symptoms such as chest pains and bleeding which they would have sought help for before coronavirus. 

Nicola Sturgeon confirmed there was a “concern” that people might be using the NHS less because they didn’t want to be a burden and getting sicker as a result. 

However there was not yet enough evidence to be sure of what was happening.

The First Minister: “They will think they are helping the NHS, and obviously that sentiment is one we appreciate.

“But we don’t want people to not come forward if they’re worried about their health."

Dr Smith and the First Minister were speaking after new figures showed the number of deaths recorded in Scotland was 650 higher than average last week.

Data compiled by National Records of Scotland showed there were 1,741 death registrations between March 30 and April 5, compared to an average of 1,098 deaths registered in the same week over the last five years.

Coronavirus was implicated in 282, or less than half, of the above-average deaths. 

Some of the others were due to an administrative backlog.

However, a large number are as yet unexplained, but could be so-called “indirect deaths” related to coronavirus.

In advance of the outbreak, health experts feared some people would die from other causes because the health system was overwhelmed as Covid-19 took priority.

However there are now concerns that people may be dying unnecessarily because they are failing to seek treatment for other conditions, either because they fear hospitals are unsafe because of Covid-19, or they don’t want to be a burden on the NHS.

Attendances at A&E departments in Scotland are down 60 per cent since the start of March. 

At the daily Scottish Government briefing on coronavirus, Dr Smith said: “When I have conversations with clinicians across the country, and I am in dialogue with medical royal colleges, the one thing that keeps on coming back to me is that the system feels eerily quiet in relation to people presenting with illness which isn’t Covid-19 just now. 

“That, as a clinician, is immediately disconcerting because that illness hasn’t gone away somewhere. It exists. People are perhaps making a choice not to present just now for lots of potential motivations.

“I think we’ve got to be very clear that there are huge risks for people to hold onto symptoms like that, and if they’re experiencing urgent symptoms - I’ll give you the examples of chest pain or bleeding but there’s numerous other symptoms that people sometimes that people sometimes try to put off in seeking help with.

“These are things you should be seeking help for.

“I want to get that message across very, very clearly to everybody.

We, as clinicians, need to see you when you have these symptoms.

"We don’t need you sitting at home worrying about the odd pains that you’ve only started experiencing across your chest that you’ve never had before, or the sense of weakness in your hand, or even the bleeding that wasn’t there last week but has suddenly started.

“These are things that we want you still to come and see us about because we can help you and make sure that if it needs further investigation, further assessment, or even further treatment, that we’re getting that treatment to you as quickly as possible.” 

Asked if people were dying because they were avoiding the health service because of Covid-19, Ms Sturgeon said: “I don’t think it would be correct right now to say that we have enough evidence to say that people are dying for those reasons.

“But obviously the fact that this is a message we are deliberately giving [to seek treatment] reflects the fact that we have a concern - that people understandably... because they know the health service is under pressure... there may be a tendency for people to be less likely to come forward to the NHS. 

“They will think they are helping the NHS, and obviously that sentiment is one we appreciate.

“But we don’t want people to not come forward if they’re worried about their health.

“Whatever the worry is, whether it’s coronavirus-related, or for some other reason, the health service is still there.

“Other illnesses haven’t gone away because of coronavirus.

“So that message is clear: if you are unwell, or feeling under the weather for other reasons, come to the NHS as you usually would.”

Ms Sturgeon said the rise in non-coronavirus deaths was also being seen in other countries, and the Scottish Government was investigating it.

However a definitive explanation could be several weeks away.