Long wait for Preston cancer patients
Nearly three in 10 cancer patients at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals are waiting longer than two months for treatment, new figures show.
Charities fear there will a further backlog of cases nationally as a result of service disruption amid the coronavirus pandemic, while fewer people put off seeking help from their GP.
Macmillan Cancer Support says patients must "not be left behind and forgotten" in the Government's plans for easing lockdown measures.
NHS data shows that in Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, just 72 per cent of cancer patients started treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral in 2019-20.
That was down from 80 per cent in 2018-19.
It means 465 patients waited longer than two months, and the trust fell far below the 85 per cent target introduced a decade ago.
Nationally, just 77 per cent of patients in England received cancer treatment within two months of an urgent referral in 2019-20 – the lowest rate on record.
Sarah Woolnough, executive director of policy and information at charity Cancer Research UK, said the figures indicate the start of the impact of the virus on cancer waiting times, but "don’t provide the whole picture".
She added that the fall in urgent referrals, which worsened into April, is "very concerning" and means thousands of patients who need vital cancer care are in a backlog.
“The NHS is working hard to create ‘Covid-free’ sites for cancer care. An essential part of this is frequent testing of NHS staff and patients, including those without symptoms. But it’s clear this is not happening quickly enough," she said.
"Patients need to know that cancer hospitals are a safe place to go. Lives are in jeopardy.
“We continue to urge people to speak to their doctor if they are worried about potential cancer symptoms.”
The number of people across England who had their first hospital consultation following an urgent GP referral – known as a "two-week wait" referral – fell to 181,873 in March, down from 188,740 in the previous month.
Macmillan’s head of policy and influence, Sara Bainbridge, said this indicated fewer people were seeking help from their GP due to fears about catching Covid-19.
“We are concerned that disrupted services mean fewer people will be embarking on treatment at this time for a variety of reasons,” she added.
“People will be waiting longer for treatment in the future. There are likely to be issues around meeting the 85% standard time.”
Meanwhile, the Health Foundation said workforce issues were already impacting cancer services prior to the pandemic.
Tim Gardener, a spokesman for the think tank, said: “The NHS has seen growing staff shortages. This would have affected services including cancer.
“There is also an issue with capacity in diagnostic services, which is arguably the biggest factor behind waiting time performance measures.”
An NHS spokeswoman said almost 30,000 people with cancer had their first treatment in March.
“The vast majority were treated within one month of the decision to treat," she said.
“NHS staff have made huge efforts to ensure that patients can continue to have cancer surgery throughout the pandemic and people must continue to come forward for checks if they have a worrying symptom.”