Almost 23,000 women in Northern Ireland have been caught up in a backlog for breast cancer screening as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, campaigners have found.
Breast Cancer Now released their findings on Wednesday, which also stated that over 150 women in Northern Ireland who could not get a breast screening may be living with undetected breast cancer. Routine screenings for breast cancer were among some of the health services that were put on hold in April as staff and resources were devoted to dealing with coronavirus.
The programme recommenced on July 20, with a focus on clearing the backlog of women awaiting screening appointments.
The Public Health Agency is working with trusts to secure additional resources to further expand screening capacity to address the backlog as well as to increase the number of screening clinics.
Breast Cancer Now found that 986,361 women in the UK were awaiting breast screening due to the suspension of the service - with 22,856 of those in Northern Ireland.
The charity forecast that 8,655 of the women in the queue could have been living with breast cancer that has gone unidentified.
In Northern Ireland that number was 155.
The DUP's health spokesperson, Pam Cameron MLA, who is also the deputy chair of Stormont's Health Committee, said the statistics were "frightening" and urged the Department of Health to clear the backlog as soon as possible.
"A safe balance between Covid restrictions and resumption of services is understandable; however, the nature of cancer screenings is a completely essential and lifesaving service," the MLA added.
SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, who also sits on the Health Committee, said it is a "balancing act" to deal with both Covid-19 and other health concerns.
"It's a massive ramification of Covid," he said.
"We need to have the fine balance that if all the resources are thrown at Covid, then we're taking our eye off all the day-to-day appointments that are necessary."
UUP health spokesperson Alan Chambers added that Health Minister Robin Swann knows what needs to be done to tackle the backlog of breast cancer screenings.
"Given the Covid-19 pandemic, I don't think he's going to be able to rebuild as quickly as he would like but I am confident he will do all he can to maximise and to ensure that red flag cases and any late referrals are prioritised," stated the North Down MLA.
Breast Cancer Now warned that although screenings are now back up and running again, the number of appointments on offer have been drastically cut in the wake of new Covid-19 regulations.
This is further compounded by the huge backlog of women waiting to be screened after their appointments were cancelled.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, Breast Cancer Now's chief executive, said: "We understand that the breast screening programme was paused out of necessity due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, but we must now press play to ensure that all women can access breast screening, and we cannot afford for the programme to be paused again.
"Governments and NHS health bodies across the UK must set out how the influx in demand for imaging and diagnostics will be met."