By Victoria Moss, a medical negligence solicitor at Irwin Mitchell 

A National Audit Office (NAO) report has raised significant concerns about the estimated number of “missing” urgent cancer referrals during the pandemic. The report suggests the number could be as high as 740,000 people. The report also found that since the beginning of the pandemic between 35,000 and 60,000 cancer patients missed their first treatment.

“Biggest ever cancer crisis”

Although the NHS cancer services had recovered to pre pandemic levels by June 2021, the report found that patients with an urgent GP referral for cancer were still more likely to be delayed with 26 per cent waiting more than 62 days for treatment to start.

Leading oncologist professor Pat Price has warned that this is the “biggest cancer catastrophe ever to hit the NHS” and there is a “growing cancer backlog”. Time is of the essence with cancer diagnosis and treatment and Professor Price warns that “every four weeks of delay can mean a 10 per cent reduction in cancer survival.”

Regional lottery of cancer inequality  

The NAO report also found a regional lottery of cancer inequality with The Midlands being the worst hit region. In Birmingham and Solihull 57 per cent of patients are waiting more than 62 days for the start of their treatment, while 51 per cent of patients in Leicester are waiting more than 62 days.

It is clear that although cancer services are now back to pre-pandemic levels, the impact of the pandemic and the backlog of patients requiring treatment are continuing to cause significant delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Professor Price provides a stark warning that if the Government doesn’t take action “people will die who don’t need to”.

Support for patients

As a medical negligence solicitor I have seen first-hand the devastating impact that a delay in the diagnosis or treatment of cancer can have. Being diagnosed with cancer is an extremely worrying and stressful time for people under “normal” circumstances; however, those who have received their diagnosis throughout the pandemic have the added concern of potential delays to their treatment and what this means for their prognosis.

Running cancer services at pre-pandemic levels is not enough; it is vital that cancer services are provided with the additional funding and support that is required to identify the “missing” urgent referrals and clear the significant backlog of patients waiting to start treatment. This support is required urgently as time is not a luxury that many cancer patients have.  

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and their families affected by delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment at our dedicated section