Huge drop in cancer referrals at East Lancashire Hospitals

The number of people sent for urgent cancer investigations at East Lancashire Hospitals has more than halved as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show.

Macmillan Cancer Support says the virus has "wreaked havoc" on cancer care nationally, with service disruption and fears over Covid-19 leading to a huge backlog of patients requiring vital treatment.

NHS England data shows 710 people were seen by a specialist at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust following an urgent GP referral in April.

That was down from 1,538 in the same month last year – a drop of 54%.

A total of 710 people were seen by a specialist at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust following an urgent GP referral in April.

The situation reflects that across England, where 79,600 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in April, down 60% from April 2019.

Under normal circumstances the figure would be around 210,000 in April, Macmillan said, suggesting around 130,000 fewer people could have missed important examinations.

Lynda Thomas, Macmillan's chief executive, said the latest figures are a "sobering demonstration" of the impact of Covid-19 on cancer services.

"The pandemic has wreaked havoc on cancer care. Many people with cancer are being left to wait for next steps in fear, worrying about the long-term implications for their health, their families and their future.

“We’ve been calling for an urgent recovery plan for NHS cancer services since April, to ensure cancer does not become the forgotten ‘C’ throughout this crisis.

"UK governments must now urgently commit to measures to address the backlog, including the allocation of the staffing and resources needed to deliver the safest possible care."

At East Lancashire Hospitals, the number of people starting treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer fell by 15% to 82 in April – mirroring the fall seen across England as a whole.

Of them, 20 had waited over two months since their referral.

Nationally, 26% of people waited two months or longer to begin their treatment process.

Sarah Woolnough, executive director of policy and information at charity Cancer Research UK, said the national statistics are "hugely concerning", and thousands of patients are now in a backlog needing cancer care.

“It’s devastating to see the impact that Covid-19 is having on cancer patients and these figures show just how much the virus has affected cancer waiting times", she said.

“The NHS has been working hard to create ‘Covid-protected’ spaces for cancer services. An essential part of this is frequent testing of NHS staff and patients, including those without symptoms, so that vulnerable patients aren’t put at risk of contracting the virus."

She said there had been some indication since April that patients are starting to contact their GPs again for telephone and online appointments.

Many people have been put off seeing their doctor during the pandemic due to fear of catching the virus or not wanting to burden staff, according to Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS's national clinical director for cancer.

He added: "Lives are saved if more people are referred for checks, so my message to anyone who has a worrying symptom is: the NHS is here for you and can provide safe checks and treatment if you need it, so please help us help you, and get in touch with your local GP like you usually would.”