All heart and cancer screening programmes in England missed targets last year, MPs warn

‘Preventable deaths will be the consequence’ without action to turn around falling screening rates, say charities

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Friday 10 May 2019 09:03 BST
Public Health England launches Governments first national cervical screening campaign

More people will die of preventable cancers and heart conditions because of the government’s failure to address “appalling” flaws in screening programmes, experts have warned.

A damning report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee found not one adult screening programme in England met its minimum target for health checks.

Some 1.25 million women last year were forced to wait too long for cervical cancer screening results, with uptake at the scans standing at a 21-year low.

Only 72 per cent of eligible women were screened for breast cancer, below the target of 80 per cent.

While the national bowel screening target of 60 per cent was narrowly missed, with 59.6 per cent of people screened, a cutting-edge “bowel scope” test only reached a third of eligible patients.

The findings come after a string of high-profile scandals, and NHS England, Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care are still failing to hold screening providers to account, MPs said.

Most recently the National Audit Office warned 150,000 cervical cancer smear samples had been allowed to build up at labs because of a poorly implemented overhaul of the service.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of screening letters, including test results and invitations, went unsent in a programme outsourced to the professional services firm Capita.

Officials are accused of presiding over failing IT infrastructure, some of which have had issues since 2011, while systems are not in place to track all people eligible for tests.

This is made worse by stark inequalities across geographical regions relating to who is screened and who gets test results on time.

MPs said in their report that “women attending cervical screening appointments are being continually failed by screening providers” and targets are not being met.

“This delay is unacceptable and the impact of the undue stress and worry for women must be recognised,” the study said.

“Our inquiry has exposed a health service that is losing its grip on health screening programmes.”

MPs did not consider pregnancy or newborn health checks, or diabetic eye screening, but reviewed four programmes conducted nationally in adults: bowel, breast and cervical cancer screening and screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm, offered to men as they turn 65.

The report found that not one met their targets on how many people should be screened in 2017-18.

“We are currently in a situation where even the lowest targets for uptake are not being met,” Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said. “It is appalling that this is the case,” he added.

The government has launched a review of screening led by Professor Mike Richards that aims to make programmes safer and more effective, and this must be matched by investment from government, the charity said.

“If not, we will reach a tipping point in our programme and preventable deaths will be the consequence,” Mr Music said.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary said: “It’s clear that services are underfunded, under-resourced and can’t keep pace with demand. The Conservatives urgently need to get a grip of the emerging crisis in cancer care.”

The report comes as new data shows that NHS performance on cancer waiting times in 2018-19 is the worst since the targets were set.

Last year was the fifth in a row that the key 62-day waiting time target for people to start treatment following an urgent referral for suspected cancer has been missed.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said 11 million people are screened a year and record numbers are being treated for cancer.

“Although we await further recommendations from the Sir Mike Richards Review of national screening programmes, we are pushing ahead with important changes to help detect as many cancers as early as possible."

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