New figures from Cancer Research UK estimate that 2.4 million people in the UK are waiting for cancer screening, tests and treatments since the COVID-19 lockdown began.
Around 2.1 million people are waiting for breast, bowel or cervical screening, with screening services formally paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and invitations not being sent out in England.
Timely cancer diagnosis and treatment, which have big impacts on survival rates, have seen a significant decrease with the number of urgent referrals for further tests dropping by 290,000. The fall in diagnosis has largely been explained by fewer people visiting their GP, despite NHS campaigns encouraging them to do so. Urgent referrals have, however, shown a rebound from 25% of usual levels in England at the start of the pandemic to around 50% in recent weeks.
The number of operations has fallen to around 60% of normal levels, with 12,750 people waiting for cancer surgery across the UK. Chemotherapy has seen 6,000 fewer people than expected receiving treatment since lockdown began. Radiotherapy appointments have shown a smaller fall of 10%, but this may include patients receiving this treatment rather than surgery. The drop in treatment has been attributed to pressures on the NHS including a lack of recovery or ICU beds, and concerns that treatment could make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Cancer services across the UK have begun adapting to COVID-19, with COVID-protected safe spaces being set up to allow treatment to be delivered safely. Cancer Research UK note that this requires regular testing for COVID-19 in all patients and staff working in these places, whether they have COVID-19 symptoms or not, enough PPE for staff and consistently implemented infection control measures.
Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, Professor Charles Swanton, said:
“Delays to diagnosis and treatment could mean that some cancers will become inoperable. Patients shouldn’t need to wait for this to be over before getting the treatment they need. We can create a safe environment for both staff and cancer patients if testing efforts ramp up quickly.”