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Coronavirus and cancer – July updates

by Katie Roberts | Analysis

7 July 2020

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Illustration of COVID-19 coronavirus.
  • 30 June – Two NHS Nightingale hospitals converted into cancer testing centres
  • 29 June – Cervical screening to resume in Scotland
  • 22 June – Shielding advice updated in England
  • 2 June – Risk of death from COVID-19 confirmed to be higher for Black, Asian and minority ethnic Groups
  • 27 April – NHS campaign urges people to get help if they need it
  • 21 April – Urgent cancer referrals fall across the UK
  • 21 March – Shielding measures introduced to protect people at high risk of COVID-19
  • See previous coronavirus and cancer updates from June, May or March and April.

We’re monitoring the latest government and NHS health updates from across the UK and updating this blog post regularly as new guidance emerges.

3rd August – NHS to roll out “COVID-friendly” cancer treatments

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens announced that the roll out of treatments that are safer for cancer patients will be expanded. The £160 million funding will pay for drugs that require fewer hospital visits or have fewer side-effects affecting the immune system, both of which can leave patients more susceptible to infection. Since the pandemic began, almost 2,000 people have been given these therapies, which has allowed their treatment to continue rather than being delayed or halted.

This is encouraging news for some patients, who could now go ahead with their treatment, when it might have previously been on hold due to COVID-19. In recent years, successful price negotiations between the NHS and drug manufacturers have significantly improved patients’ access to new cancer medicines, but cancer doesn’t stop because of a pandemic, so it’s fantastic to see this work continuing throughout this difficult period. Steps like this to adapt the care patients can be offered, together with the creation of COVID-protected safe spaces, will be critical in minimising the impact on people with cancer and ensuring their survival.

– Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive 

29 July – Surgery in Scotland to run at 60% capacity for next 2 years

The Scottish Government have published a new paper highlighting the steps required for the health service to recover, estimating that the country’s surgical capacity will operate at 60% capacity for at least two years. The report recommends that hospitals implement local policies to prioritise treatments, ensuring that the limited resources are shared fairly.

The report details that the backlog of cancer patients impacted by COVID-19 is 500, with an additional 2,000 patients waiting for scans, endoscopies and other forms of screening.

Marion O’Neill, Cancer Research UK’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said: “Early diagnosis followed by swift access to the most effective treatment, including surgery, remains as important as it’s ever been for cancer survival. So it’s vital Health Boards and Scottish Government continue to work together to make the most effective use of existing staff, equipment and approaches to care, to address this backlog and ensure as many patients as possible can receive timely surgery.”

28 July – One third of cancer patients say coronavirus has impacted their treatment

That’s according to new survey results published by Cancer Research UK. Around 4 in 10 also said their tests – including those to find out whether their cancer had spread or returned – had been affected.

23 July – No free food box if shielding starts again in Wales

With Welsh shielding due to finish on the 16th of August, more that 163,000 food boxes have been delivered to more than 130,000 people on the shielding list at a cost of around £15m.However, were the shielding programme to begin again, the Welsh Government have announced that there would be no free food boxes for those in need.

According to James Taylor – from disability equality charity Scope – almost a third of disabled people would not leave home when lockdown ends. Last week, Wales’ chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton said supermarkets would continue to offer priority delivery slots for those in the shielding group. The prescription delivery service will remain in place until 30 September.

22 July – Care home visits to resume in England

It is now possible for care homes in England to “carefully and safely” allow visits while taking into account “local knowledge and circumstances for each care home”. While some homes have been allowing socially-distanced outdoor visits, new guidance has been published to ensure the health and safety of both care workers and residents. Some of the guidelines include being limited to visiting one individual where possible, encouraging wearing facemasks and only bringing gifts that are easily cleanable by staff. This guidance also extends to visiting people in registered residential care and those in nursing homes for people with learning disabilities, mental health or other disabilities in England.

21 July – Avoidable cancer deaths in England in coming years

According to one team of researchers, there could be more than 3500 avoidable cancer deaths linked to COVID-19 in England in the next 5 years. The researchers used hospital data from more than 93,000 cancer patients to model the effects of the disruption to services caused by the pandemic. The lead researcher, Professor Clare Turnbull, from The Institute of Cancer Research said taking fast action now could still turn things around.

“Prioritisation of particular patient groups may be effective in mitigating the extent of excess deaths and lost life years,” she said.

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, stated that “it’s not easy to pin down the exact number of additional cancer deaths we expect to see over the coming years.” We’ve blogged before about why it’s so difficult to estimate the impact on cancer survival.

Cancer Research UK analysis from our scientists has shown that over 55,000 more people are waiting to get tests to diagnose some common cancers in comparison to last year.

21 July – Surgical and dental services face difficulties in Northern Ireland

Surgeons in Northern Ireland are frustrated at the slow pace of return to normal care. Gavan McAlinden from the Royal College of Surgeons said that patient lists are growing and that it often felt that appeals to reopen clinics are “falling on deaf ears”. The Department of Health said that they are “committed to rebuilding services as quickly as possible” while ensuring patient and staff safety.

This comes as dental care is resumed in Northern Ireland, with some dentists voicing concern over the lack of PPE preventing their practices from reopening after closing  in March. The Department of Health said that there had been “significant” logistical challenges in delivery and that the 5 urgent dental care services (which have provided most care over the pandemic) would remain open. Practices that are re-opening will face restrictions, including appointments spaced up to one hour in order to clean.

17 July – Endoscopy services to be restored in Scotland

The Scottish Government have announced a £7.8 million investment to address the backlog for endoscopies, which are used to diagnose a variety of cancers, including oesophageal and bowel cancers. This comes after endoscopy services were stopped for all but emergency cases during the COVID-19 outbreak due to the high risk of transmitting the virus.

16 July – Shielding in Wales to pause from 16 August

The 130,000 people who were advised to shield in Wales will no longer need to do so after 16 August, the chief medical officer for Wales has announced.

Shielding advice was also updated in Scotland today, with more detailed information being published for people with cancer. There’s also some guidance for people with cancer who have not been advised to shield.

Shielding will be paused in England from 1 August, and updates to shielding advice in Northern Ireland were announced in June.

As advice varies in each nation, please visit the relevant government websites for the latest guidance.

15 July – Scotland announces new priorities to manage urgent referrals

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of urgent referrals for suspected cancer cases reduced dramatically. Although numbers are increasing, concerns remain that lung cancer referrals still remain low and the impact this might have.

Now, the Government has published guiding principles for clinicians in Scotland to manage urgent suspicion of lung cancer referrals during COVID. This includes increased assessments for lung cancer, separating the symptoms from those of COVID-19 and increased feedback to local GPs for follow up and review.

15 July – Wales publishes new testing strategy

The Welsh Government has published its latest COVID-19 management strategy. This includes methods of preventing the spread of the disease, protecting the NHS services and making testing more widespread, with additional strengthening of programmes such as contract tracing.

As part of this scheme, all patients admitted to A&E will be tested upon arrival, as well as all of those patients being discharged into care homes or hospices. In areas of the country where there are high levels of infection, patients for elective treatments (including day surgery) will be required to self-isolate for 14 days beforehand and will be tested upon arrival.

NHS staff are also impacted by these guidelines, with routine testing for asymptomatic frontline asymptomatic staff to prevent infection spreading. In order to increase testing capacity, the Welsh Government is working with the UK Government to set up a Lighthouse lab capable of processing tests for rapid turnaround within 24 hours.

13 July – Breast screening to resume in Scotland

Scotland’s Breast Screening programme is set to resume from Monday 3rd August after being paused in March due to COVID-19. From 13th July, breast cancer screening invitations are being slowly sent out, including to people who had their appointments cancelled or were unable to attend for any reason. Additional safety measures are in place, including staff wearing necessary PPE and appointments being adjusted to allow for physical distancing.

Cancer Research UK’s Head of External Affairs for the Devolved Nations, Marion O’Neill, said that “it is great news that breast cancer screening services in Scotland are returning. Although breast cancer screening has both benefits and harms, we know cancer screening programmes saves lives”.

9 July – Urgent cancer referrals in May down by 45% in England

New waiting time figures released by NHS England reveal that urgent cancer referrals in May fell by 45% compared to figures from May last year. Experts say these figures are more evidence of how much coronavirus has affected cancer services. In April, urgent cancer referrals were down 60% compared to April 2019.

While it’s encouraging that the number of urgent cancer referrals has started to recover since the steep decline in April, the latest figures for May are still worryingly low. And we know from local figures that urgent referrals are not yet back to normal levels, well past the peak of the virus. Months of delays have continued to add to the mounting cancer backlog, which will take considerable effort, time and money to clear. Last month, we sent our recommendations to Government, in partnership with several other cancer charities, and we have yet to see a plan or receive a response. It’s vital that the NHS and Government work together – and that the much needed investment is made – to ensure the health service has the staff and equipment it needs to clear the backlog, and to ensure staff can care for their patients in ‘COVID-protected’ environments. Above all, people should really feel reassured that it’s safe to use our health services again. If you’re worrying about symptoms, please contact your GP right away and if you need tests do follow your doctor’s advice to have these without further delay.

– Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive.

7 July – UK scientists urge PM to prevent catastrophic drop in charity research funding

More than 60 of the UK’s top cancer and cardiovascular disease researchers have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to support UK medical research charities.

Because of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on our income, Cancer Research UK could be forced to cut £150 million per year from its research funding.

It’s imperative that the Government urgently works with medical research charities to come to a solution, so that decades of investment in UK research is not lost in a matter of months. Charities like Cancer Research UK support the careers of thousands of scientists – but this isn’t just about the impact on leaders in our field of research, it’s about future generations of scientists that could lose out on opportunities. If the Government believes in improving cancer survival, ensuring the UK retains its position as a global scientific power, and protecting our talented scientists, it must support the UK’s research charities in their time of need. We know that with support we can help get research back on track, along with the many benefits this brings to the economy. But, ultimately it will be patients who will miss out on life-saving discoveries if the Charity Partnership Fund isn’t backed by Government, which is heartbreaking and preventable.

– Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive.

6 July – Most children who are shielding will not need to from July 31st

Most children who are currently considered extremely clinically vulnerable will not need to shield from the 31st of July, the Government has confirmed. Only a small group of children with the most severe conditions should now be considered extremely clinically vulnerable. This group may include those receiving cancer care or those at risk of severe infection due to an immunodeficiency.

Children will only be taken off the shielded patient list following a consultation with their GP or specialist doctor, who will be in touch with families over the summer.

1 July – UK Government sets out ‘road map’ to cementing the UK as a science superpower

Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, laid out a road map to help cement the UK as a research and science superpower. The plan centres around attracting global talent, investing in research infrastructure and cutting unnecessary red tape.

We fully support the Government’s ambitions for the UK to be a science superpower. Right now, the UK isn’t investing enough in world-leading infrastructure, so a move to do so is welcome. Charities like Cancer Research UK play a unique and vital role in the research ecosystem, which should not be under-estimated. This also comes as medical research charities like us are feeling the financial impact of COVID-19, which is putting our life saving research at risk. We look forward to working with Government to shape how the Roadmap is implemented, and importantly protect the role that charities can play in achieving these shared ambitions.

– Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation.

Visit our previous blog posts for coronavirus and cancer updates from June, May or March and April.


If you have questions about cancer, you can talk to our nurses Monday to Friday, 9-5pm, on freephone 0808 800 4040.