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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:
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.
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