A CANCER “ticking timebomb” is set to explode after hundreds of thousands of cases were missed during the lockdown.
The repercussions are likely to see survival rates for cancer plummet as more people are diagnosed in the later stage of disease.
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Analysis of NHS England figures by The Times revealed 350,000 fewer people have been referred by a GP to hospital.
Around 1.85 million urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs between March 2020 and January 2021 – a 16 per cent drop on the 2.2 million in the same period the year before.
Around 20,300 fewer lung cancer referrals were made, and 34,400 breast cancers.
Some 2,000 cases of child cancer are suspected to have been missed in the year of Covid lockdowns.
Chris Thomas, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), warned the drop “risks creating a ticking time bomb for missed cancer cases and a decade of disruption for health services, unless urgent action is taken”.
Diagnosing cancer early is the key to the best chance of survival.
Fear of catching coronavirus or putting more pressure on the NHS has left Brits avoiding seeking medical help for symptoms.
Combined with this, there have been delays in screenings and diagnostic tests during lockdowns, meaning some curable cancers become difficult to treat.
Research from the think tank IPPR reveals thousands of avoidable deaths this year will be a result of pandemic delays.
The proportion of cancers diagnosed while still at a highly curable stage had dropped from 44 per cent to 41 per cent, Mr Thomas said.
“This will undo at least eight years of colorectal cancer survival rate progress, six years in breast cancer survival rates, and two years in lung cancer survival progress.”
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said she was “hugely concerned” about people with symptoms who had not come forward.
“It’s very important that anyone who has noticed an unusual change in their body gets in touch with their GP,” she said.
The charity has warned a staggering three million fewer people were checked for cancer through screening between March and September 2020 than in the same period in 2019.
And that was before the second and third national lockdown.
Delays in numbers
How many people were referred to hospital by their GP between March 2020 and January 2021 compared to the same period a year prior:
Lung cancer: -34 per cen, about 20,300 fewer patients.
Urological cancer: -25 per cent, around 51,000 fewer patients
Brain cancer: -23 per cent, around 2,200 fewer patients
Child cancer: -21 per cent, around 2,000 fewer patients
Breast cancer: -8 per cent, around 34,400 fewer patients
Professor Karol Sikora, ex-director of the World Health Organisation’s cancer programme, warned of “Covid tunnel vision” – when other diseases continue to be pushed aside even when vaccinations are being given at speed.
He told the Daily Express: “That has to change.
“Prostate, breast, lung, bowel – the true scale of the cancer crisis is slowly revealing itself… And the picture is worse than many oncologists feared.”
The pandemic has also seen delays in treatment – around 40 000 fewer people than normal started cancer treatment in the UK last year, according to a report in the Lancet.
Government officials say cancer diagnosis and care has “remained a top priority throughout the pandemic”.
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An extra £1million is being used to boost diagnosis and treatment across all areas of elective care, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
But experts fear throwing cash may not be sufficient to resolve the crisis, when there are staff shortages and a huge NHS waiting list to deal with.
Ms Mitchell said: “The NHS will have to operate at above pre-pandemic levels and get the right investment to clear the backlog to ensure people have the tests and treatment they need.”