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We respond to NHS England breast cancer waiting times: September 2021

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

“All vital breast cancer targets being missed for the ninth consecutive month is evidence of the continued toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on breast cancer.

“With only months left for NHS England to deliver on its bold ambition to address the shortfall of patients starting their first breast cancer treatment by March 20221, September’s data reveals very little progress has been made, with 9,440 fewer people having started treatment for breast cancer compared with prior to the Covid-19 pandemic2.

Finding women living with undiagnosed breast cancer and ensuring they urgently get the treatment they need is a priority.

“It’s promising that GP referral rates have held for those with potential symptoms of breast cancer.

"But we estimate that around 1,200,000 fewer women in England had routine breast screening as part of the screening programme between March 2020 and May 2021, compared to pre-pandemic levels3.

"This means urgent action is needed to equip local systems with capacity across diagnostics and treatment, especially given the immense winter pressures that our health service will face in the coming months. 

“It also remains critical that the government invests in a strategic, fully funded long-term plan to tackle the rapidly growing crisis facing the cancer workforce, to ensure that prompt breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is guaranteed - both now and in the future.

“This must happen, as until then we fear even more women will face delays – delays that in the worst cases could result in some women dying from the disease.”


Notes to editors

  1. NHS England 2021/22 operational planning guidance.
  2. The number of people starting their first treatment for breast cancer under the 31-day wait from decision to treat, between March 2020 and September 2021 (compared to data from the same months in 2019/20) in England. Calculated using Monthly Provider Based Data and Summaries, Cancer Waiting Times, NHS England.
  3. 1,283,886 fewer women in England - calculated using data on the average number of women screened each month, based on performance data for 2018/19. (With some adjustments to account for 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 several months); the length of time for which services were paused. And the fact that services were operating at around 60% capacity when they restarted, due to social distancing and infection prevention measures.

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