The last 10 weeks have caused inevitable disruption to the NHS. During lockdown the health service has redirected staff and prioritised the treatment of patients with coronavirus. In the meantime other areas of medicine including cancer care, have been scaled back. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland completely halted cancer screening programmes that detect early signs of breast, bowel, and cervical cancer, although this screening was not officially stopped in England.

Despite the fact that the public were encouraged to continue to seek medical assistance when they needed it, the number of GP referrals dropped considerably. Cancer Research UK has confirmed that urgent referrals (used particularly by GP’s when they suspect a when patient may have cancer or has symptoms of cancer), fell in the first four weeks of lockdown by up to 75%.

During lockdown routine operations have also been delayed, with Cancer Research UK estimating that 12,800 fewer operations to remove tumours have taken place. In addition many of those already diagnosed with cancer have also been affected as vital treatments including chemotherapy and radiotherapy were postponed. Cancer Research UK have estimated that 2,800 fewer people received radiotherapy, and 6,000 fewer people received chemotherapy during the 10 weeks of lockdown.

According to Cancer Research UK there are now an estimated 2.1 million people in the UK that have missed out on cancer screening. They estimate that in the region on 290,000 people have not been referred to hospital despite having suspected cancer symptoms, and that more than 23,000 cancers could have gone undiagnosed during this time. The charity has suggested that around 2.4 million people are now waiting for cancer treatment, tests and screening. Macmillan Cancer Support has suggested that due to the disrupted cancer services there is now a “ticking cancer timebomb".

Michelle Mitchell, the Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK said that, "The NHS has had to make very hard decisions to balance risk," and that the coronavirus pandemic has put an "enormous strain on cancer services"…”There have been some difficult discussions with patients about their safety and ability to continue treatment during this time.” She reiterated that “Prompt diagnosis and treatment remain crucial to give people with cancer the greatest chances of survival and prevent the pandemic taking even more lives”. Macmillan Cancer Support has also warned that urgent action was required to avoid cancer becoming “the forgotten C” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cancer services and routine procedures and appointments are now running again across England. NHS England said cancer services were now largely "open, ready and able to receive all patients who need care". The Welsh and Scottish governments have indicated that cancer screening programmes would resume when safe, based on clinical advice. In Northern Ireland, there are plans for routine screening, along with urgent treatment and cancer surgery to resume shortly.

We have previously blogged about Health Unions raising that a “safety first” approach was now vital including provision of the correct PPE. Sara Bainbridge, Head of Policy for Macmillan Cancer Support has asked the government "to set out exactly how it will support the NHS to rapidly rebuild cancer services, including how people will be protected from infection by ensuring there is enough staff, regular testing, plentiful supplies of PPE and... social distancing,".

Michelle Mitchell has reiterated this and said that "frequent testing of NHS staff and patients, including those without symptoms" was crucial. The four nations of the UK are taking differing approaches on this, however many hospitals have now set up Coronavirus free spaces to address the backlog of patients, and to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus. This is particularly important for those vulnerable patients, for example those with cancer and whose immune systems are suppressed.

We know from experience that it is important that those with health concerns are able to access the support and guidance they need. Should you have new or existing symptoms we would suggest contacting your GP in the first instance as it is important for your health and wellbeing to seek medical assistance. If you have any concerns that a medical condition has been missed or there has been a delay in any cancer treatment then please do get in contact with us as we may be able to assist you.

Although we are, for the time being, not able to meet clients in person, our specialist clinical negligence team at Freeths is here to support and advise clients. We are available for meetings and consultations via telephone, email, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype and any other digital platform that works for you.

If you are concerned about any treatment which you or a loved one have received, please contact our team:-

Karen Reynolds, Partner (Derby/Stoke on Trent/Birmingham) on 0845 272 5677 or karen.reynolds@freeths.co.uk

Carolyn Lowe, Partner (Oxford/Milton Keynes) on 0186 578 1019 or carolyn.lowe@freeths.co.uk

Jane Williams, Partner (Leicester/Nottingham) on 0845 272 5724 or jane.williams@freeths.co.uk