Huge drop in NHS cancer referrals due to Covid-19

There has been a huge drop in the number of people sent for urgent cancer investigations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show.

NHS England figures show that a total of 79,573 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in April 2020, down from 199,217 in April 2019 – a fall of 60%.

Urgent breast cancer referrals showed an even bigger drop: down from 16,753 in April 2019 to 3,759 in April 2020, a fall of 78%.

The number of people in England who had to wait no more than two months from GP referral to first treatment for cancer was also down 20%, from 13,519 in April 2019 to 10,792 in April 2020.

Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy and information, said: “It’s devastating to see the impact that Covid-19 is having on cancer patients and these figures show just how much the virus has affected cancer waiting times.

“The dramatic fall in the number of urgent referrals – which is down 60% compared to the same time last year – and the drop in people receiving treatment on time in April is hugely concerning.

“It means that tens of thousands of patients are in a backlog needing vital cancer care.

“This is why the NHS has been working hard to create ‘COVID-protected’ spaces for cancer services.

“An essential part of this is frequent testing of NHS staff and patients, including those without symptoms, so that vulnerable patients aren’t put at risk of contracting the virus.

“Patients need to know that cancer hospitals are a safe place to go, and that’s why we are calling for the Government and the NHS to make this happen as quickly as possible.”

She said there had been some signs of recovery since April and signs that patients are starting to contact their GPs again for telephone and online appointments.

“This is incredibly important and we continue to urge people to speak to their doctor if they are worried about potential cancer symptoms or have questions about their care,” she said.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS national clinical director for cancer, said: “These figures show that over the last three months NHS staff have been working incredibly hard to ensure that essential and urgent cancer treatment has been able to go ahead safely for thousands of people.

“But they also show what we have heard already, that many people have put off seeing their GP for possible symptoms due to fear of catching the virus or not wanting to burden staff.

“Lives are saved if more people are referred for checks, so my message to anyone who has a worrying symptom is: the NHS is here for you and can provide safe checks and treatment if you need it, so please help us help you, and get in touch with your local GP like you usually would.”

Separate figures from NHS England show the number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England in April 2020 was 41,121 – a sharp fall of 85% on the equivalent number for April 2019 (280,209).

At the same time, the number of people having to wait more than 18 weeks to start treatment rose to 1.13 million, almost double the number in April 2019 (579,403) and the highest number for any calendar month since January 2008.

A&E attendances at hospitals in England were down 42% last month compared with a year ago, the figures also showed.

A total of 1.3 million attendances were recorded in May 2020, down from 2.2 million attendances in May 2019.

NHS England, which published the figures, said the fall was “likely to be a result of the Covid-19 response” – an indication that people have continued to stay away from A&E departments because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The year-on-year drop in A&E attendances of 42% in May compares with a fall of 57% recorded in April.

Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “We really do fear for the health service over the remainder of the year given the increasing evidence of the mishandling of the pandemic and as yet scarce sign of any meaningful recovery plan.

“The numbers of patients seeking urgent care has been well below what we would expect for this time of the year, more than 50% of patients are waiting more than six weeks for a diagnostic test and, combined with the postponement of much planned treatment, it is a potent mix.

“This could have significant consequences for both patients and hospitals as we adapt to the pressures of Covid and Covid-free working.”

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