COVID-19 pandemic leaves 2.4m patients stuck in cancer care backlog

Around 2.4m patients are waiting longer for cancer tests or treatment because of 'enormous disruption' to services during the coronavirus pandemic, a charity has warned.

MRI scan (Photo: Sebastian Condrea/Getty Images)
MRI scan (Photo: Sebastian Condrea/Getty Images)

The figures from Cancer Research UK lay bare the extent of the reduction in hospital services that has left GP practices struggling with rising pressure as patient contacts surge back to normal levels after a fall at the start of the pandemic.

Analysis by the charity found a 2.4m shortfall in screening, referrals and treatment for cancer over the 10-week period from the start of lockdown compared  with normal levels of activity.

Cancer screening accounts for the bulk of the drop, with around 2.1m people left waiting for breast, bowel or cervical screening.

Urgent cancer referrals

Meanwhile, urgent cancer referrals which should usually take two weeks to complete have been ‘severely impacted’ with up to 290,000 people missing out on further testing, the charity found.

GPonline reported in April that patients were waiting more than a month for urgent cancer checks during the pandemic. The latest GPonline opinion poll, meanwhile, found that more than three quarters of GPs feared patients would come to harm because of delays to care during the pandemic, with one in three reporting that urgent referrals had been rejected.

GPs were told by NHS England in mid-April to refer patients to hospitals for all treatments 'as normal', but for many referrals have continued to be rejected.

Cancer Research UK has called on the government to create a ‘clear national plan’ to aid the restoration of cancer services - and estimates that 21,000 to 37,000 daily COVID-19 tests for paitents receiving cancer treatment would be needed for services to return to normal safely.

Coronavirus impact

The analysis estimated that urgent referrals have fallen by up to 75% in parts of the country although improvements have been reported in recent weeks.

Chemotherapy also fell to around 70% of what was expected, which would mean around 600 patients each week not receiving this treatment.

Cancer Research UK predicted a significant backlog of treatment, with up to 12,750 fewer patients receiving surgery, 6,000 fewer for chemotherapy and 2,800 fewer receiving radiotherapy since lockdown began.

The charity warned that ‘COVID-protected’ safe spaces are needed to tackle the growing backlog in a safe manner.

Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: 'The NHS has had to make very hard decisions to balance risk, and there have been some difficult discussions with patients about their safety and ability to continue treatment during this time. But we’re over the peak of the pandemic now, and cancer care is starting to get up and running again as "COVID-protected" spaces are being set up.

‘To get cancer services back to normal levels while ensuring no one is put at risk, frequent testing of NHS staff and patients, including those without symptoms is vital.’

An NHS spokesperson said: 'Even though more people than ever started NHS cancer treatment in March, coronavirus has turned millions of lives upside down.

'Cancer services are largely now open, ready and able to receive all patients who need care, so the critical point is that anyone who is concerned about a possible cancer symptom should contact their GP practice and come forward for a check-up.'

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