Coronavirus: 50,000 cases of cancer left undiagnosed due to Covid disruption, research shows

This figure could double to 100,000 by October 2021 if cancer care services not fully restored, warns Macmillan Cancer Support

Samuel Lovett
Thursday 29 October 2020 09:14 GMT
What could a road map out of coronavirus restrictions involve?

Up to 50,000 people in the UK have cancer that has not been diagnosed due to disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic, new research shows.

This figure could double to 100,000 by this time next year if authorities fail to fully restore vital cancer health services — including check-ups, screening and referrals — that have been cancelled or paused as a result of coronavirus.

Macmillan Cancer Support, which conducted the research, said it could take at least 18 months to identify those individuals who have developed cancer since the outbreak of Covid-19.

The mounting second wave, which has seen hospitalisations and deaths surge across the country, has already resulted in the postponement of surgery for cancer patients, as revealed by The Independent, with Macmillan now calling upon No 10 to ensure cancer care is not deprioritised in the months ahead.

In its new report, The Forgotten C? The Impact of Covid-19 on Cancer Care, the charity also warns that there are an estimated 33,000 cancer patients in the UK who are still waiting on potential life-saving treatment.

Macmillan says that even in a best-case scenario, it could take the NHS almost a year and a half to clear this backlog across England and Wales.

Lynda Thomas, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, warned that cancer care is now at a “crossroads”, adding that services must not be shut down or scaled back.

“Because of the pandemic, we estimate that an additional 50,000 people are missing a cancer diagnosis and others are having their appointments disrupted once again,” she said. “It is simply unacceptable if they face unbearable and unprecedented delays which could affect their chances of survival.

“Cancer doesn’t stop for Covid-19 and neither can our health services. Macmillan is doing whatever it takes to support people with cancer and our exhausted NHS staff, but we need more. Governments need to promise every person with cancer that they won’t be forgotten and ensure cancer services are protected, come what may.”

The charity’s report showed that if cancer screening and diagnosis returns to normal, with 10 per cent additional NHS capacity compared to before the pandemic, it would still take until April 2022 to clear the current cancer backlog in England.

If these services do not recover to pre-pandemic levels, an additional 4,000 cases of cancer will go undiagnosed in the UK every month, culminating in a 100,000-strong backlog by October 2021.

To prevent the situation worsening, Macmillan is calling on governments across the UK to guarantee that NHS cancer services will have ringfenced staffing and resources to keep running this winter.

The charity has urged health secretary Matt Hancock to prevent the redeployment of equipment, beds, or cancer nurses and clinicians, and guarantee access to Covid-19 testing and personal protective equipment.

The Royal College of Nursing separately told The Independent that “health and care services other than those treating Covid-19 patients must be maintained this winter to ensure that people living with long term, serious, health conditions like cancer do not suffer.

The Independent understands that Mr Hancock has met with Macmillan and other charity bosses to discuss getting cancer care back on track. Although these meetings are said to have been positive, the sector as a whole is still awaiting details on the government’s cancer recovery plan.

A separate large-scale cancer survey conducted by Macmillan has also shown that more than 650,000 people with cancer in the UK have experienced disruption to their care because of Covid-19.

This includes many thousands of people who may not be in active treatment but still require follow-up care and support, Macmillan said.

One in four with a current diagnosis said they have had a test, scan or treatment delayed or rescheduled since the outbreak of coronavirus.

A further 90,000 people living with cancer said they experienced possible symptoms of their cancer getting worse, or coming back, and had not yet told their GP or healthcare team because due to fears of catching coronavirus or adding to the current pressure on the NHS.

The NHS challenged Macmillan’s findings, saying that cancer care treatments and activities had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Two-week wait referrals for cancer treatment were at 97 per cent for the week commencing 11 October, the NHS said, with first treatments on the urgent pathway at 100 per cent.

“These assumptions are flawed because thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, cancer treatments are actually back to pre-pandemic levels,” a spokesperson said.

“The majority of people who have not been diagnosed are people who have not come forward for checks and so our message is clear – if you have worrying symptoms you must get this checked – the NHS is ready and able to treat you.”

In response, Macmillan said “we are in no doubt that there are tens of thousands of people who have been impacted”.

Sara Bainbridge, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Our analysis represents a worrying picture in cancer care – that people have not seen their GP to get referred for cancer tests and that treatments were disrupted by Covid-19.”

“It’s encouraging to hear from the NHS in England that unpublished data shows improvements for September and October – we hope this progress continues as pressure on the health services increases.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a priority throughout the pandemic – more than 200,000 people were treated for cancer during the first peak - and we urge people to come forward if they have symptoms.

“The NHS treated two non-Covid patients for every one Covid patient during the first wave of the pandemic and more than 870,000 people were referred for cancer checks between March and August.”

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