28 January 2021

New figures from NHS Digital, taken from the performance data on the breast screening programme for England between April 2019 and March 2020, show that:

  • 2.6 million women aged 50-70 were invited for breast screening, an increase on 2018/19 when 2.56 million women were invited for screening.
  • However, the percentage of these women taking up their screening invitation within six months was 69.1%, which is below the national minimum standard of 70%, and a decrease from 2018/19 when 71.1% took up their invitation.
  • Uptake was above the national minimum standard of 70% in all regions except the North West, where it was 67.7%, the West Midlands where it was 68.5%, and London where it was 59.3%.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“The percentage of women in England attending breast screening has dipped below the national minimum standard (April 2019 - March 2020) with uptake in the North West and West Midlands below the standard, and London dropping significantly below. With these figures running up to the end of March 2020, they’re an early indicator of the disruptions that COVID-19 has been having on breast cancer services since the start of the pandemic.

“Breast Cancer Now estimates that in 2020 nearly 1.2 million fewer women across the UK had breast screening as a result of the pandemic,1 and that up to 10,000 women could therefore currently be living with undetected breast cancer2 - a worrying prospect when the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed the more likely treatment is to be successful, helping to prevent women from tragically dying from the disease.

“Services have worked tirelessly to restart and continue to deliver screening. Yet, among the many unprecedented challenges COVID-19 continues to present to our health service, the growing backlog of women waiting for a screening appointment is placing immense pressure on a diagnostic and imaging cancer workforce that was already chronically under-resourced and over-stretched prior to the pandemic.

“It’s now vital that the Government provides significant investment in the breast cancer workforce, and urgently works with NHS England to deliver the next phase of the NHS People Plan, to enable the breast screening programme to make a swift recovery and to be sustainable – to give all women, now and in the future, the best chance of survival.

“While screening comes with some risks to be aware of, we encourage women to attend their breast screening appointments during the pandemic, and to get in touch with their GP if they find any new or unusual breast changes. When attending an appointment, safety measures will be in place to reduce the risk of the spread of the COVID-19 infection. Anyone seeking information and support can speak to our expert nurses by calling our free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.”


Notes to Editor

1 Calculated using data on the average number of women screened each month, based on performance data for 2018/19 (with some adjustments to take account of the fact that the AgeX trial in England stopped recruiting during the pause to services and self-referrals for women aged 71 and over were suspended for different periods across the UK), the length of time for which services were paused*, and the fact that services have been operating at around 60% capacity since they restarted due to social distancing and infection prevention measures.

*In 2020 breast screening services were paused in Scotland for approximately four months, in Wales for five months, and Northern Ireland for four months. While breast screening services in England were not officially paused, they were effectively paused, and we have assumed a pause of four and a half months. Some services may have paused for shorter, and some for longer, periods.

The breakdown of the nearly 1.2 million fewer women screened in 2020 by nation is England - 1,001,700; Scotland - 93,756; Wales - 61,237; NI – 33,828

2 The estimate of the number of undetected cancers was calculated by applying the rate of detection per 1,000 women screened for each nation to the number fewer women screened in each nation. The breakdown of undetected cancers by nation is England – 8,815; Scotland – 816; Wales – 576; Northern Ireland – 230.

About Breast Cancer Now

  • Breast Cancer Now is the UK’s first comprehensive breast cancer charity, combining world-class research and life-changing care.
  • Breast Cancer Now’s ambition is that, by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live and be supported to live well.
  • Breast Cancer Now, the research and care charity, launched in October 2019, created by the merger of specialist support and information charity Breast Cancer Care and leading research charity Breast Cancer Now.
  • Visit breastcancernow.org or follow us on Twitter or on Facebook.
  • Anyone looking for support or information can call Breast Cancer Now’s free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.