England faces a breast cancer timebomb as official figures show a million fewer women were screened for the disease over the first year of the pandemic.
In total 1.19m women had the vital tests in the 12 months to April 2021, marking the lowest number since records began two decades ago and down nearly half on 2.12m the previous year.
There were also around 7,000 ‘missing’ breast cancer cases during the first year of the pandemic, with experts warning that delays in diagnoses will reduce womens’ survival chances.
Charities said today’s statistics were an ‘alarming reminder’ of the impact of the pandemic, and warned it could lead to hundreds of avoidable deaths.
NHS hospitals suspended the screening programme in March 2020 as the health service turned all of its attentions to the pandemic and the first national lockdown was enforced.
Some units reversed the controversial decision the following month but hospitals were operating severely reduced services, leading to massive backlogs. Lockdowns last winter and surges in hospitalisations led to staffing shortages and further delays with screenings.
It resulted in invitations for screenings falling to their lowest level since 2004 to 1.85m, two-fifths fewer than the previous 12-month spell.
Checks dropped across all age groups and fell below ‘acceptable’ levels in all regions of England.
Problems with diagnosis has affected all cancers, with charities estimating there are more than 50,000 ‘missing’ cases for all types of the condition.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has announced a war on cancer which involves 10m extra diagnostic tests — including for breast cancer — carried out from 2025 in diagnostic hubs to be set up in car parks and community centres.
The NHS said the pandemic had ‘inevitably’ impacted services, but that it was now ‘inviting more people than ever’ to be screened for breast cancer and investing a further £70m in the services.
The number of breast cancer screenings carried out has now fallen to a two-decade low in England figures show
Across all regions cancer checks fell below the ‘acceptable’ level, NHS figures showed. Initially only London was below this with 67.3 per cent of women screened
And in England as a whole only 29 out of 149 local authorities saw their population screened for breast cancer last year
Breast cancer detection rates rose among those who were checked. But NHS figures showed a total of 7,000 fewer breast cancer cases were diagnosed last year compared to the previous 12-month period
Women are invited for their first breast cancer between the ages of 50 and 53, and are then asked to come for checks every three years until they are 70.
NHS Digital statistics showed 1.19m over-45s were screened for breast cancer up to March 2021 in England, down 44 per cent from 2.12m the year before.
Across all age groups, national coverage for breast cancer — the proportion of women checked every three years — dropped compared to the year before.
6MILLION fewer adults saw a dentist during Covid as industry warns its at ‘last chance saloon’
Only a third of English adults have seen a NHS dentist in the past two years of the pandemic, shocking new data has revealed.
Official health service data shows just under 15.8million adults in England were seen by an NHS dentist in the 24 months to the end of 2021.
It marks a 6million drop-off compared to the 24 months to the end of 2019, the last period of data unimpacted by the Covid crisis.
Like many other services people struggled to access dentistry during the pandemic as many practices were forced to shut their doors during lockdown and hundreds of dentists left the profession themselves or went entirely private, exacerbating a long term trend in the workforce.
The new report prompted the British Dental Association (BDA) to warn the sector was in the ‘last chance saloon’ and urged government to commit to rapid and sweeping reform of the industry.
They warned the nation’s oral health will begin to suffer due to widening inequality between those unable to see an NHS dentist and those who can afford to go private.
Less adults being able to see an NHS dentist will eventually come back to bite the nation, the BDA warned, as minor problems that could be fixed with simple procedures become more severe and expensive to treat.
Official health service data, which records the number of adults seen by NHS dentists in 24 month periods shows the drastic decline in the number of people seeing a dentist since the pandemic. While people struggled to access NHS dentistry services before Covid due to a lack of appointments, the situation has deteriorated further with 6million fewer people seen compared to pre-pandemic levels
The BDA added that nearly 1,000 dentists have left the NHS in the last year, a trend they expected to continue.
Recent surveys conducted by the BDA indicated that 40 per cent of dentists said they were likely to change career to seek an early retirement, citing current pressures on services.
Additionally, two out of three dentists said they plan to scale back their NHS services, and a third say they plan to fully private within the next year.
The BDA says despite a recent £50m funding boost from the Government the long term funding of NHS dentistry services remains uncertain.
It argues the sector would need a £880m boost just to catch-up from where services were in 2010.
It was lowest among 53 to 54-year-olds (61.9 per cent screened), when women are first invited for the checks.
They were followed by 55 to 59-year-olds (63.4 per cent), 60 to 64-year-olds (65 per cent) and 65 to 69-year-olds (65.4 per cent).
In every region coverage was also below the ‘acceptable’ levels, whereas before the pandemic it was only below this in London.
The capital still had the lowest screening levels (55.2 per cent), followed by the North West (62 per cent) and the West Midlands (62.4 per cent).
But even in the regions with highest coverage, of the South East (68.4 per cent) and East (67.4 per cent) it was still below the recommended threshold.
Cancer detection rates rose on previous years, with 9.4 cases now detected per 1,000 women. The year before it was 8.4 per 1,000.
This may be because lack of access to services has led to early warning signs of cancer being missed, with more patients instead going on to develop the disease.
The report’s figures only cover up to April 2021, but since then NHS figures show breast cancer waiting times have continued to drop.
NHS England figures show 62 per cent of patients referred for a consultation with breast symptoms where cancer was not initially suspected were seen within two weeks.
But by December, the latest date available, this had dropped below 50 per cent.
For all cancers more patients are now waiting longer than two weeks for a consultation following a GP urgent referral than in April 2021.
Initially 85 per cent were seen within this time frame, but over the following eight months it has dipped to 78 per cent.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, warned the human cost behind today’s figures was ‘stark’.
‘An estimated 8,870 women in the UK are living with undetected breast cancer as a result of the pandemic — a significant number of which would have been detected at routine screening.
‘Tragically, research suggests that up to an additional 680 women could die from breast cancer in the next decade due to impacts of the pandemic on screening.’
Baroness Morgan urged the NHS to prioritise breast cancer care to ‘prevent more women tragically dying from the disease’.
She said: ‘Next year’s screening figures will be the true indicator of how successfully the programme has restarted, recovered and delivered on these actions.’
Mr Javid has unveiled a £12billion-a-year blueprint to bring the NHS out of the pandemic, in which he promised to ‘go to war on cancer’ and tackle spiralling waiting times.
The Health Secretary set an aim for 75 per cent of urgent cancer referrals to see it either diagnosed or ruled out within 28 days, and for the number of people waiting more than 62 days for an urgent referral to be scaled back to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023.
Diagnostic hubs will also be set up across the country to help the NHS work through the spiralling backlog of women yet to be offered their three yearly screening appointment.
But the plans have been blasted as a ‘pathetic rehashing of old pledges’ by Labour, who say the Government should aim to go further.
Hospitals are already facing severe pressure with the waiting lists for routine surgeries now at an all-time high of 6.1m and predicted to double over the next two years due to pandemic delays.
Leaked projections suggest it could at least double by 2025 as 10m ‘missing’ patients come to the health service.
To solve the crisis, ministers have unveiled a recovery plan that has been criticised for not going far enough to improve care on the NHS.
The report promises one-year waits will come to an end in 2025, while two-year waits will be abolished by July 2022 — four months later than was previously promised by the Government.
It also sets out that waits of over 18 months will be scrapped by April 2023, while waits over 65 weeks will be ditched by the following year.
Self-referrals also dropped in all age groups. There have been fears that this was because people were steering clear of the NHS during the pandemic for fear of being a burden or catching the virus
Mr Javid said the assumption was that waiting lists won’t start to coming down until March 2024, meaning the NHS waiting lists are expected to hit record highs every month for more than two years.
This prediction is based on ‘maintaining low levels of Covid’, meaning they could be abandoned in the event of another serious outbreak. There are also no concrete recruitment targets over the next three years.
It is also based on half of the 10m ‘missing’ patients — people who were expected to come forward during the pandemic but didn’t — coming forward. But the number of patients who will return to the NHS could be more or less than the predicted figure.