The number of men urgently referred for suspected prostate cancer fell by more than a quarter during the pandemic, official figures show.
Experts warned the ‘lost’ referrals could lead to thousands of delayed diagnoses and avoidable deaths.
NHS England data shows the number of patients urgently referred for the cancer fell by 28 per cent between April 2020 and January of this year – about 52,000 fewer.
The charity Prostate Cancer UK estimates at least 8,600 fewer men started treatment for prostate cancer in that time, down around a third on 2019.
It said the drop in referrals is largely attributed to fewer men seeing their GP during this time. Urgent cancer referrals are made when family doctors strongly suspect a patient may have the disease.
For example, separate NHS Digital figures show there have been 35million GP appointments over the course of the pandemic.
While some people with prostate or other urological cancer experience difficulty urinating, charities warned many patients often show no signs at all in the earliest stages.
Prostate Cancer UK is asking the public to share its 30-second risk checker to help men understand their risk. Men over 50, slightly younger black men and those with a family history of the disease are at particular risk.
Professor Michael Kirby, former GP and editor of Trends in Urology and Men’s Health, told The Telegraph: ‘The significant drop in referrals over the past year means thousands of men are likely to be living without a diagnosis of prostate cancer, and could be missing out on potentially life-saving treatment.
The number of men urgently referred for suspected prostate cancer fell by more than a quarter during the pandemic, official figures show
The charity Prostate Cancer UK said the drop in referrals is largely attributed to fewer men seeing their GP during this time. NHS Digital data shows there were 12 per cent per cent fewer visits in England between March 2020 and January 2021 compared to the same period a year prior
‘That’s why I strongly encourage all men to check their risk of prostate cancer, and speak to their GP if their age, ethnicity or family history puts them at higher risk of the disease.’
Angela Culhane, chief executive at Prostate Cancer UK, said: ‘Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK, but until these missing men are found and referrals begin to rise, many more men could be diagnosed when it is too late for them to be cured.
‘Detecting cancer earlier helps save lives, but sadly prostate cancer doesn’t have a screening programme, and most men with early prostate cancer don’t have any symptoms.
‘That’s why we want men to be informed about their risk, which is higher if you are over 50, black or if your father or brother had the disease.’
It comes as a record 4.59million people are now on the NHS waiting list for surgery as the result of the Covid fallout.
The number of people in the queue for routine procedures such as hip and knee replacements in England has surged by 170,000 since last January.
35MILLION fewer GP appointments were made in England during the Covid pandemic, official figures show
More than 35million GP appointments have been ‘lost’ during the Covid pandemic, fuelling fears of a ticking time-bomb of late diagnoses.
NHS Digital data shows there were 12 per cent per cent fewer visits in England between March 2020 and January 2021 compared to the same period a year prior — down from 287.2m to 251.4m.
Experts fear missed appointments have led to a significant deterioration in patients’ health, missed cancers and the worsening of other conditions such as asthma and diabetes.
Cancer charities have warned the current ‘Covid-induced’ backlog could lead to at least 35,000 excess deaths.
The figures, published last month, show that GP surgeries have fared better during the second wave than last spring.
For example, there were 8m fewer appointments year-on-year last April, during the first lockdown, compared to 2m missed during the second shutdown in November.
The NHS cancelled almost every service when the pandemic first took off last March, when scientists did not fully understand the threat of the disease and Brits were told not to visit their GP unless it was an emergency.
But officials came under criticism for the knock-on effect of delayed care on the nation’s health, and there was a concerted effort going forward to keep vital services up and running despite restrictions.
The figures also show there were more than 3m ‘lost’ appointments this January, as GPs juggled routine care with the Covid vaccine roll-out and the NHS grappled with levels of the virus that surpassed the spring peak.
And a staggering 304,000 people have already been waiting for more than a year, according to the figures for January. This is 100 times higher than at the start of the coronavirus outbreak and 200 times higher than in January 2020.
Hospitals had to turf out patients during the first wave of Covid, and some during the second wave, and thousands of people saw their treatment delayed or cancelled.
The number of heart operations has dropped by 39 per cent on last year and cancer waiting times have also spiked because of hospital delays, with the proportion of suspected patients getting seen by a specialist within the two-week waiting time target down to just 83 per cent.
This figure is also a record low for the NHS and it fell from 88 per cent in December last year and means nearly 30,000 people with suspected cancer waited more than a fortnight to find out for sure in January.
The NHS said it saw one in three of all its Covid patients in January 2021 alone – 100,000 people – which ‘inevitably’ had an effect on its non-Covid care.
As a result the number of people admitted for treatment during January was half as high as in the same month last year – 139,378 compared to 304,888.
Figures from NHS England show 4.59 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of January – the highest number since records began in August 2007.
The number waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment stood at 304,044 in the same month – the highest number for any month since January 2008.
A year earlier, the number of people waiting over a year was just 0.5 per cent of the current number, at 1,643.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, commenting on new figures on the NHS waiting lists, said: ‘These shocking figures show thousands of additional patients are now waiting over a year in pain and distress for treatment and the figure keeps going up.
‘Rishi Sunak could have used last week’s budget to give the NHS the funding it needs to bring waiting lists down and address the growing backlog for treatment. Instead, he failed patients by cutting NHS budgets and nurses’ pay.’
The data showed the impact of the pandemic lockdown, with a 54 per cent drop in the number of people admitted for routine treatment in January compared with a year earlier.
Some 139,378 patients were admitted for treatment during the first month of this year, compared with 304,888 in January 2020.
Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: ‘This data shows again the enormous challenges we face now and into the future to recover services while also managing constant demand.
‘This week has been manic and flow through acute medical units is suffering due to the necessary infection control measures in place and the effect that has on reducing bed numbers…
‘Elective work is restarting imminently and this will add to the pressure on already exhausted staff.’
The waiting list for routine surgery and treatment in NHS hospitals in England is higher than ever at 4.59million
HOW THE NHS HAS STRUGGLED DURING THE PANDEMIC
Operation waiting lists are at an all-time high and cancer treatment is at a record-low as a result of the savage toll of the coronavirus pandemic on the NHS.
Experts have warned the country faces a future wave of health crises because so many people have had their care delayed.
WAITING LISTS FOR OPERATIONS
Some 4.5 million people in England are waiting for non-emergency surgery, the highest figure since records began in 2007.
And a total of 192,000 have been waiting more than a year for life-changing operations such as hip and knee replacements.
This is around a 160-fold increase since before the pandemic began in February, when just 1,163 had been waiting for a year.
The NHS waiting list data goes up only until the end of November – and doctors say the total will keep rising.
NHS England figures also show that at least 12,000 fewer heart operations than expected took place in England in the year to November 2020 – around one third lower than usual.
MISSED CANCER CARE
Separate figures show that during the first wave of the pandemic around 35,000 fewer people were diagnosed with cancer than would be expected.
Experts said the delays will cost lives, allowing tumours to grow and cancers to worsen.
The data from Public Health England’s National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service reveals 106,732 cases were diagnosed between April and September 2020, down from 142,324 the previous year.
STILLBIRTHS AND MISSED SMEARS
Other harrowing figures show the number of stillbirths in England almost doubled last spring, according to the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB), and at least 250,000 women are overdue their cervical smear tests as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, NHS figures show.
Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, added: ‘With fewer routine operations carried out and the pressure on services remaining high throughout 2021, this number will grow further.
‘We also know that referrals from GPs have also fallen in January, which means there is a hidden patient group not yet on the waiting list that will need treatment but haven’t come forward or entered onto waiting lists.
‘The pandemic and lockdown will have stopped some people from seeking treatment. But we do not yet know the additional demand this will heap onto services in the future. Exhausted NHS staff will have a lot of work ahead to clear record backlogs, which will need to be considered carefully.’
The British Heart Foundation looked at the NHS data and found there were 39 per cent fewer heart operations done in January this year compared to January 2020 – 25,000 compared to 41,000.
The BHF also found that 150 times more people in England were waiting longer than a year for their heart procedures than before the pandemic began – 4,200 compared to 28.
The ops can be life-saving and include artery bypass, heart valve replacement, stents and surgeries to repair congenital heart defects.
The charity says ‘delays to care have likely contributed’ to the more than 5,000 excess deaths related to heart disease and stroke during the pandemic.
Experts say the number of people developing serious conditions is not declining so the reduced number of surgeries is a result of disruption to the NHS or people not seeing a doctor when they should.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation said: ‘The longer the pandemic continues, the longer people with heart conditions are waiting for the vital and potentially life saving treatment they need.
‘We have already seen an average of 100 extra heart and stroke deaths a week in England, but the pandemic’s true toll on people with heart and circulatory diseases could be far greater and be felt for years to come.
‘The pressure from Covid-19 may be lessening, but the backlog of cardiovascular care continues to grow, and must be urgently addressed. This is a significant but surmountable challenge that will require a clear plan and commitment to enough investment, now and in the long term.’
The cancer waiting times getting longer has caused serious concerns among experts and charities, who warn the pandemic has caused a ‘timebomb’ of the disease.
Fewer people than usual saw their doctors during the lockdowns, meaning many lived for longer with their cancer growing unchecked.
Dr Hans Kluge, World Health Organization director for Europe, said the impact the pandemic had had on cancer treatment was ‘catastrophic’.
He warned many more people will die in the coming years, particularly of breast and bowel cancer, for which screening appointments have been postponed.
The NHS cancer figures show that 83.4 per cent of people with suspected cancer were seen by a specialist within two weeks of being referred by their GP.
Two weeks is the NHS target for this and, in late 2019 and early 2020, more than 90 per cent of patients were being seen within it.
Waits have surged since, with the number of people facing agonising longer waits rising from 9.6 per cent in July to 13 per cent in November and 16.6 per cent in January.
And for people diagnosed with the condition, a greater proportion than ever are waiting more than a month to start their treatment – six per cent.
NHS data also shows an eight per cent drop in the number of people starting cancer treatment, meaning growing numbers of people are having potentially life-saving therapy delayed either because of NHS pressures or because they are undiagnosed.
Cancer Research UK chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said: ‘Whilst it’s positive that urgent referrals did not plummet as they did in the first wave, these January figures show that the pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on cancer patients.
‘Some patients faced cancellations to their cancer surgery, and this appears to be reflected in the figures.
‘The NHS has worked hard to protect cancer services where possible, but the NHS will have to operate at above pre-pandemic levels to make sure people get a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.’
Macmillan Cancer Support’s head of policy, Sara Bainbridge, added: ‘Covid-19 continues to cast a long shadow over people living with cancer, with yet another significant drop in the number of referrals for cancer diagnosis and treatment.
‘This is on top of the tens of thousands of people who are still missing a diagnosis due to disruption caused by the pandemic, which could be impacting their prognosis with each day that passes.’
Professor Stephen Powis, the national medical director for the NHS in England, said: ‘Admitting more than 100,000 Covid patients to hospital in a single month inevitably had a knock-on effect on some non-urgent care.
‘However, thanks to the hard work of NHS staff and the innovations in treatment and care developed over the course of the pandemic, hospitals treated more than one million people with other conditions in January, at the peak of the winter wave, nearly twice as many as they did last April.
‘That is a testament to the skill, dedication and commitment nurses, doctors, therapists and countless other staff showed in the most challenging period in NHS history.’