The number of people who have not had a potentially life-saving NHS breast screening has risen to 1.5 million women across the UK, a charity has warned.
Breast Cancer Now estimated that, since NHS services restarted in the summer, half a million more women have missed a breast screening.
It said that around 1.48 million fewer UK women had a breast screening at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, between March 2020 and May 2021, and estimated that 12,000 people in the UK could have been living with undiagnosed breast cancer at the end of May because of fewer screening services and fewer women with possible symptoms being referred to specialists.
Chief executive Baroness Delyth Morgan said: “A year ago we reported with concern that almost one million women had potentially missed breast screening due to services being paused in the first wave of the pandemic; unfortunately, despite our hardworking NHS staff, screening services running at reduced capacity means that now 1.5 million fewer women have been screened – a staggering 50% increase since services restarted.
“Women with breast cancer are continuing to pay the price due to the impact of the pandemic, and in the worst cases delayed diagnoses could mean that some women die of this devastating disease. Quickly finding and treating those with undiagnosed breast cancer must be a priority, and governments across the UK must urgently ensure there is sufficient investment to do this – these women do not have time to wait.”
For NHS England to meet its March 2022 target of addressing the shortfall in people starting cancer treatment, an additional 10,000 people would need to start treatment for breast between May 2021 and March 2022, Breast Cancer Now said.
It urged the government and the NHS to set out how the £50m of additional investment to tackle backlogs in England could be used to ensure all women living with undiagnosed breast cancer are identified and treated, and to develop a fully-funded long-term plan for the imaging and diagnostic workforce to ensure prompt diagnosis and treatment.
“Urgent investment in the chronically understaffed imaging and diagnostic workforce will enable significant headway in tackling the breast screening backlog and help ensure women with possible symptoms see a specialist quickly so that if they have breast cancer it’s diagnosed as soon as possible – only then will women receive the best care and have the best chances of survival,” said Baroness Morgan.
Dr Jeanette Dickson, president of The Royal College of Radiologists, said breast imaging and treatment services were chronically under-resourced before the pandemic and staff are trying to fit almost two years’ worth of screenings in amid staff shortages, substandard facilities and slower working due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“If the government is serious about improving breast cancer outcomes and tackling the backlog then in the short-term it has to continue investing in scanners and IT connectivity, as well as push through stalled service improvements. But ultimately, we cannot get away from the need to invest in people. The NHS needs more imaging and oncology staff to ensure future breast cancer patients get the care they deserve,” she said.