Record 2.7m people referred for cancer checks after pandemic decline

ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger reports on the devastating effect the pandemic has had on cancer care

A record 2.7 million people were referred for cancer checks over the past year, after figures suggested the pandemic saw numbers dramatically decline in 2020.

The number of patients receiving treatment for the disease has also risen by 2,000 since the start of the pandemic, according to NHS England.

According to data from the health service and NHS Improvement, referrals for suspected cancer remained at around 116% of pre-pandemic levels even during the peak of the Omicron wave, and rose overall from 2.4 million to 2,657,316.

Around 315,000 patients also started treatment compared with 313,000 before Covid-19 struck, they added.

Louise McAllan said it was devastating to hear that the pandemic meant there was nothing her doctors could immediately do following her diagnosis of stage four cancer.

The seven month wait for any treatment took its toll.

"When you have got cancer, you are constantly thinking: how much has it spread now?" she told ITV News.

"You are worried all the time. I became a bit of a shell of myself for a little while- even though I was fighting I still felt quite empty."

Louise McAllan says she was shocked at the treatment delays she faced after her diagnosis. Credit: ITV News

Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for NHS England, said there were still 30,000 people who have not yet started treatment due to the pandemic, but that the latest figures suggested progress.

“We are going further and faster than ever before in our ambitions to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage so that we can save more lives,” she said.

“We have seen record numbers of people coming forward for checks in the last year, but we know there are still at least 30,000 who haven’t started treatment due to the pandemic, so it’s vital that we keep these referral rates high.”

How will the NHS keep up?

In order to meet the increasing demand for cancer checks, the NHS said it has expanded its services’ diagnostic capabilities across the country in a range of ways.

What you need to know - Listen to the latest episode

Facilities such as one-stop shops for tests, mobile clinics and cancer symptom hotlines are helping to ensure people are diagnosed and treated as early as possible, the health service said.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England national clinical director for cancer, said: “We know the pandemic meant that at first we saw fewer patients, but in the last year GPs have been referring people for investigation in record numbers and have been working hard to make sure people with worrying symptoms can be seen.

"The NHS has continued to prioritise cancer care throughout the pandemic.”

Late diagnosis warning

It comes after MPs warned that Covid-related disruption means more people will not have cancer diagnosed until it has reached a later stage, when it is harder to treat.

In a report earlier this month, the Health and Social Care Committee said three million fewer people in the UK were invited for cancer screening between March and September 2020.

And between March 2020 and March 2021, 326,000 fewer people in England received an urgent referral for suspected cancer.

The Omicron wave also saw more cancellations of vital cancer treatments, “indicating the NHS is still not able to access sufficient Covid-free treatment capacity to safeguard treatments and address the backlog,” the MPs said.

'Chronic' problem must be tackled

Charities have welcomed this year’s increase in referrals but warned of the “devastating” impact of the pandemic on cancer care, and urged the government to tackle the “chronic” problem of NHS understaffing in its 10-year cancer plan.

Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is reassuring to see record numbers of people coming forward with cancer symptoms for these life-saving checks.

“However, people living with cancer are often missing out on crucial care as a result of chronic NHS understaffing.

“To avoid putting further pressure on hardworking doctors and nurses, it’s vital the Government includes steps in the upcoming 10-Year Cancer Plan to grow the number of cancer professionals so that people living with cancer receive the quality and timely care they desperately need.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Our upcoming 10-year cancer plan that will lead Europe in cancer care, along with our record investment to cut waiting times and the introduction of the health and social care levy, will help us continue our mission to tackle the Covid backlogs.”