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2,000 fewer people in England began cancer treatment in January

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by Cancer Research UK | News

11 March 2021

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Hospital corridor

The latest cancer waiting times show an 8% drop in the number of people starting cancer treatment in January, compared with figures from January 2020. The most recent figures for England, released today, are the first to reveal the impact on cancer services of the spike in COVID-19 cases at the start of the year.

Despite a peak in the number of people hospitalised with COVID-19, renewed ‘Stay at Home’ messaging and a new national lockdown, there was only a small – 2% – reduction in the number of urgent suspected cancer referrals, although this figure equates to around 3,000 fewer referrals. 

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said whilst it’s positive that urgent referrals did not plummet as they did in the first wave, the January figures show that the pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on cancer patients. “Some patients faced cancellations to their cancer surgery, and this appears to be reflected in the figures.”

Variation in urgent suspected cancer referrals

Between March 2020 and January 2021, around 348,000 fewer people have been urgently referred for suspected cancer in England, often referred to as a 2 week wait, compared to the same period the year before. That’s a drop of 16%. 

After an initial fall in April 2020 during the first lockdown – when urgent referrals fell by 60% compared to the year before – referrals have slowly been recovering, and were up by 2% on the previous year by December. But progress slipped in January, likely due to the impact of rising COVID-19 cases and the resulting lockdown. 

There’s also substantial variation across cancer types, with urgent referrals for breast cancer up in January 2021 compared to the previous year, while others are still significantly below. Urgent referrals for suspected lung cancer, urological cancers (such as prostate cancer) and brain tumours remain the most impacted. 

Cancer treatment impacted

The number of people starting treatment has also been heavily affected by the pandemic, driven by a drop in the number of people being referred for and diagnosed with cancer. 

The latest figures from NHS England show a slight dip in January, with around 2,000 fewer people beginning treatment compared with January 2020 – a reduction of 8%. This means that between April 2020 and January 2021, around 38,200 fewer people started cancer treatment in England compared with the same period the year before.

All figures have been adjusted for differences in the number of working days between years.   

Experts say it’s a complicated picture, with different treatment options impacted in different ways. Cancer surgery, for example, has been impacted heavily by the latest wave, with many urgent surgeries being cancelled, as Cancer Research UK has covered before. 

While the latest figures show the continued impact of COVID-19 on cancer services, the scale of the disruption is a far cry from the first wave. And with COVID-19 cases reducing, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive says the focus must now be the recovery of cancer services. 

“The NHS has worked hard to protect cancer services where possible, but the NHS will have to operate at above pre-pandemic levels to make sure people get a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. 

“Government and NHS leaders must give cancer services the resources needed to clear the substantial backlog quickly, as well as continuing to run public awareness campaigns to encourage people with symptoms to come forward to their GP. The Government must also urgently clarify the NHS’ budget for the year ahead so it can properly plan for the future.”