More than 2,200 new cancer cases could be going undetected each week as the Covid-19 crisis continues, a charity has warned, dramatically impacting patients’ chances of survival.
Cancer Research UK found the number of urgent referrals by GP have dropped to about 25% of usual levels.
This is down to fewer people going to see their GP and also due to practitioners’ reluctance to send patients to hospital due to the risk of Covid-19 infection, the charity said.
It said screening services have been formally paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and are “de facto” paused in England as no appointments are being made at screening hubs.
Previously, these services were screening around 200,000 people each week for diseases such as bowel, breast cancer and cervical cancer across the UK, picking up an average of 2,250 cases.
Cancer Research UK estimates the situation could jeopardise the recovery of thousands of people, as early-stage cancers are significantly easier to treat and that the numbers of new cases are stacking up each week.
In analysis on its website, it said doctors are concerned early stage cancers are being “parked” for three months or more.
After this point, the chances of curative surgery to remove all of the cancerous tissue – reducing the need for chemo or radiotherapy – become less likely.
Cancer Research UK is now calling on the NHS to develop a plan to dramatically ramp up screening services to deal with the backlog of cases once it is safe to do so.
Professor Charles Swanton, chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, told Radio 4’s Today Programme the Government needs to urgently deliver on its promise to create “Covid-free” hubs in private hospitals.
“In some parts of the country that is definitely happening, patients are having Covid-19 screening 48 hours prior to surgical admission,” he said.
“What is not happening routinely right now – although there are promising signs – is the routine screening of all staff, not just symptomatic but asymptomatic staff, in an effort to create truly coronavirus-free cancer hubs.
“The truth is, in medicine total certainty is very difficult but we can minimise risk and minimising risk requires testing, testing, testing.”
Prof Swanton said the risk of not going to a doctor is much greater than seeking medical help and potentially catching coronavirus.
The current situation is having a particular impact on the diagnosis of lung cancers – the most common cause of cancer death – for fear of spreading Covid-19 to healthcare staff, Cancer Research UK said.
Cancers that require invasive tests such as endoscopy, bronchoscopies and guided biopsies are also going undetected, the charity said.
It further warned urgent surgeries are being delayed in many parts of the country due to a lack of recovery beds with ventilation and no intensive care beds if surgery were to go wrong.
The risk of Covid-19 infection for both patients and staff was also a limiting factor in the number of surgeries being carried out, the charity said.
Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer, said: “We know if cancers are caught earlier more lives are saved which is why early referral for suspected cancer is essential and a major goal for the NHS Long Term Plan.
“Although the NHS is working day and night to tackle coronavirus, it is also open for business in other vital areas such as cancer diagnosis and treatment – if you have worrying symptoms, you should still contact your GP and be referred for further checks.”
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said on Tuesday: “We can’t stress enough how important it is that patients who have concerns about their health, such as potential cancer symptoms, contact their GP practice during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
He said although most practices are conducting consultations remotely via video ot telephone, arrangements could be made so patients that need to see a clinician face-to-face can do so safely.
Lynda Thomas, chief executive at charity Macmillan Cancer Support, said it was likely people’s reluctance to attend GP surgeries was the biggest factor contributing to the drop in diagnoses and referrals.
She said it was understandable people were concerned about the risk of infection, and not wanting to put any extra burden on the NHS, but urged anyone with concerns to seek medical advice.
“We want to reassure the public that GPs are still able to refer suspected cancer cases where appropriate and cancer teams are doing their best to maintain services and adapting to ensure patient safety,” Ms Thomas said.
She added: “(We) are calling on the Government to reinforce their ‘NHS open for business’ message, highlighting that cancer symptoms are just as serious as other major health conditions like stroke and heart attacks and should be reported urgently.”