Urgent referrals for suspected cancer have been ‘missed’ by GPs in England during the course of the pandemic according to new analysis published this week. The number of potential cancer cases missed is up to 740,000 and counting, say the National Audit Office (NAO).
The report has also warned that the NHS backlog could swell to 12 million, or one in five people in the UK, by March 2025. It is currently at a record-breaking 5.83 million, up from 4.43 million in February 2020. Medics have said that the findings of the report show that the UK is in the midst of the “biggest cancer catastrophe ever to hit the NHS”.
The impact on patients has been “devastating” say charities, amid statements from MPs that claim “things will get worse before they get better”. Millions of patients who had avoided seeing, or were unable to see, their GP during the pandemic are now ‘missing’ from waiting lists. Estimates by the NAO say that in England there were between 240,000 and 740,000 potential cancer cases missed during the period of the pandemic up to September 2021.
In turn, between 35,000 and 60,000 fewer people started treatment for cancer than would have been expected. By June 2021, cancer services had recovered to pre-pandemic levels. But in September ‘only 68% of patients requiring treatment within 62 days of urgent referral by their GP were receiving that treatment on time’, the NAO said. In addition to the missing cancer referrals, the NAO said that there were between 7.6 million and 9.1 million ‘missing’ referrals for elective care over the same period.
The authors of the report said that it is uncertain how many ‘missing’ cases will return to the NHS for treatment, or how quickly the NHS will be able to resume usual activity. It is estimated that if 50% of missing referrals return to the NHS, and activity grows in line with pre-pandemic plans, the waiting list would reach 12 million by March 2025.
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