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Covid-19 disruption to cancer treatment could lead to 35,000 excess deaths

by Awil Mohamoud
6 July 2020

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The disruption that Covid-19 has caused to cancer treatment and diagnosis could lead to thousands of excess deaths in the UK within the next year, a study has found.

Researchers from DATA-CAN, the Health Care Research Hub (HDR UK) for Cancer, analysed data from eight hospital trusts and found that there could be at least 7,000 additional deaths. 

But in a worst-case scenario, in which delays continue, there could be 35,000 extra deaths, according to the figures shared with BBC Panorama. 

Up to two million routine bowel, breast and cervical cancer screenings are estimated to have been missed during the pandemic, while many referrals into secondary care have been rejected.

In April, DATA-CAN examined weekly data from major cancer centres around the UK and found a 76% decrease in urgent referrals from GPs for people with suspected cancers, and a 60% decrease in chemotherapy appointments for cancer patients compared to pre-coronavirus levels. 

In the same month, NHS England data showed that cancer referrals made by GPs had fallen 60% year-on-year.

This had partly been due to patients avoiding face-to-face clinical attention for fear of contracting coronavirus.

Mark Lawler, Scientific Lead of DATA-CAN, and Geoff Hall, Clinical Lead and Deputy Director of DATA-CAN, were both interviewed for the BBC Panorama programme airing tonight. 

Professor Lawler said: ‘Anecdotally, people have been telling us there were problems, but I think the critical thing was being able to actually have routine data from hospital trusts. Obviously scientists like to be right in terms of their analysis, but I hope I’m wrong in relation to that.’

National Clinical Director for Cancer NHS England, Peter Johnson, told the programme: ‘We’re working as fast as we can to put the services back together again, to restore the capacity and indeed to build more, so that we can deal with the people that have not been diagnosed during the time when the services have been running below 100%.

‘I’m hoping that we will get back to where we need to be by the end of the year.’