NHS England and NHS Improvement have released data showing that the total number of patients waiting 6 weeks or more from referral for one of 15 key diagnostic tests for cancer was 468,600 at the end of April 2020. At the end of February 2020, the proportion of patients waiting 6 weeks or more for a diagnostic test for cancer was 2.8%, whereas in April 2020, this rose to 55.7%.
Diagnostic test activity and waiting times have been impacted by the COVID- 19 pandemic, despite national guidelines stating that urgent and essential cancer treatments must continue. According to Cancer Research UK, fewer people are going to their GP with concerns about symptoms, meaning that the number of urgent referrals has dropped to around 25% of usual levels in England. The reasons for this are multifactorial, but include fears among patients that visiting their GP may expose them to COVID-19 or place an unnecessary burden on already strained healthcare services. Some GPs are reluctant to risk referring their patients to secondary care for the same reasons.
Testing for cancer must resume to catch cancers at an earlier, more treatable stage and minimise the number of lives lost to cancer as a result of the pandemic.