Cancer referrals down 60% due to coronavirus, NHS England figures reveal

  • Video report by Heath Correspondent Emily Morgan

Urgent cancer referrals have seen a 60 per cent in numbers drop due to the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show.

NHS England stats show there 79,573 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in April 2020, down from 199,217 in April 2019.

Breast cancer referrals were among the hardest hit, down from 16,753 in April 2019 to 3,759 in April 2020, a fall of 78 per cent.

And the number of people in England who had to wait more than two months for a GP referral to their first treatment for cancer dropped by 20 per cent, from 13,519 in April 2019 to 10,792 in April 2020.

The latest statistics released by NHS England also show:

  • The number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospital in England was down by 85 per cent, from 280,209 in April 2019 to 41,121 in April 2020

  • A&E attendances were down from 2.2m in May 2019 to 1.3m in May 2020 - a drop of 42 per cent

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

  • 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

Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy and information, said the figures showed there was a “backlog” of tens of thousands of cancer patients who need treatment.

She said: “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.”

Credit: PA

Ms Woolnough added there had been 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: “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.”

What else do the statistics show?

Figures show that hospital admissions across the board had fallen due to coronavirus.

A&E attendances at hospitals in England were down 42 per cent last month compared with a year ago. 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 per cent in May compares with a fall of 57 per cent recorded in April.

A&E has also seen a drop in the number of patients compared to last year. Credit: PA

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 per cent 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.”

Dr Rebecca Fisher, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said: “Today’s figures are a wake-up call. More needs to be done to ensure people with cancer and other serious health conditions get the treatment they need, to avoid storing up worse health problems for the future.

“Adequate supplies of PPE, reliable testing, and a track and trace system that is fit for purpose are all urgently needed and essential to reassuring the public that the NHS is safe.”

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