The number of women in their late forties being screened for breast cancer fell by more than 40% in the past year compared to the situation pre pandemic, according to the latest figures.
The statistics from NHS Digital show 1.19 million women aged 45 and over were screened for breast cancer in 2020-21, a 44.1% decrease on the 2.12 million reported in 2019-20.
A similarly steep decline was seen in screening of women aged 50 to 70, where the numbers fell by 39.1%, 1.12 million in 2020-21 compared with 1.84 million in 2019-20.
The uptake for routine invitations for screening for women aged 50 to 70 was 61.8% in 2020-21, compared to 69.1% in 2019-20, the NHS Digital figures also showed.
During the pandemic, a combination of people feeling scared to visit hospitals, of not wanting to ‘bother’ hard-pressed hospitals or GPs, and of screening services themselves being curtailed or cut back all led to a marked decline in cancer screening across the board.
Last autumn, for example, the charity Breast Cancer Now estimated that half a million women had missed out on breast screening since routine NHS screening services had restarted.
This screening gap has raised concerns among academics and health professionals that we could see a rise in the number of cases and referrals as we come out of the pandemic, and often of cancers that are more advanced because they had not been picked up earlier.
The NHS Digital figures found that the total proportion of women aged 45 and over referred for assessment rose from 3.6% in 2019-20 to 4.0% in 2020-21, even though the number of cancers detected in women aged 45 and over fell by 39.2%.
However, the rate of cancers being detected rose, from 8.4 cases per 1,000 women screened in 2019-20 to 9.1 cases per 1,000 screened in 2020-21.