Covid’s collateral cancer crisis: Hundreds more patients than expected are dying from the disease


Hundreds more cancer deaths are now occurring in England each week, according to damning statistics that experts say lay bare the catastrophic knock-on effects of Covid.

Up to 230 additional fatalities due to the disease are being registered weekly, latest data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities shows. 

Expected deaths due to heart disease — one of the country’s top killers — have been higher than expected ever since the pandemic began. But it is only in recent weeks that cancer deaths have taken off. 

Leading experts have warned the country’s cancer crisis is a ‘total catastrophe’ and that ‘immeasurable more suffering is to come’ because of the state of the NHS.

The ailing health service is battling crises in the A&E and ambulance areas while attempting to clear record backlogs, which are having a knock-on effect on cancer performance. 

GPs were last week ordered to send thousands more suspected cancer patients for scans, bypassing hospital doctors, in a bid to speed up diagnoses. 

Latest’s OHID data shows there were 64 excess cancer deaths in the week ending October 21 — the latest date statistics are available for. Around 3,000 deaths are expected per week at this time of year. But the figure has been above the five-year average almost every week since mid-June. This includes highs of 510 extra cancer fatalities on the week ending June 10 and an additional 229 on the week ending September 9 

Just 290,000 people in England were told they had cancer in 2020, down by a tenth on one year earlier ¿ the biggest drop logged since records began 50 years ago ¿ and the lowest number logged in a decade

Just 290,000 people in England were told they had cancer in 2020, down by a tenth on one year earlier — the biggest drop logged since records began 50 years ago — and the lowest number logged in a decade

GPs ordered to send suspected cancer patients DIRECTLY for scans in bid to cut waiting times for diagnoses from 12 to four weeks 

GPs have been ordered to send thousands more patients directly for scans in a bid to speed up cancer diagnoses and free-up hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments.

Health bosses want family doctors to bypass hospital medics and request more ultrasounds, brain MRIs and CT scans themselves.

At present, people with vague symptoms can face long waits for an appointment with a specialist, diagnostic tests and their first treatment.

But the new guidance tells GPs to use their clinical judgment and order more scans for symptoms such as coughs, fatigue and dizziness – skipping the need to see a middle-man first.

It is expected to cut the typical wait for a routine diagnosis from around 12 weeks to four and free-up hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments. 

Cancer checks effectively ground to a halt during the pandemic and patients faced delays for treatment as oncologists were put on Covid wards and patients were told to stay at home to protect the NHS.

Experts have estimated 40,000 cancers went undiagnosed during the first year of Covid alone.

And thousands fewer people than expected have started cancer treatment since the pandemic began — despite NHS performance recovering slightly this summer. 

Charities fear cancer survival rates, which have improved over the past few decades but are still worse than most European neighbours, could reverse because of the knock on effects. 

This is because for every four weeks that a patient’s treatment is delayed, their chance of surviving falls by 10 per cent. Doctors have detailed a ‘vicious circle’ of patients with suspected cancer feeling they can’t bother the NHS or being unable to get an appointment.

Referrals for those needing cancer scans and tests are then taking too long, they say.

Once patients do reach hospitals, there are backlogs for biopsies and scans, followed by more delays to see radiotherapy and surgeons.

Delays throughout the treatment pathway are getting progressively worse, medics say.  

Excess deaths due to some health conditions that went undiagnosed during the pandemic are already visible in the UK’s death data.

But it takes months or years for cancer to kill — meaning those missed or caught at a later stage during the pandemic are just starting to become visible now.

Latest OHID data shows there were 64 excess cancer deaths in England in the week ending October 21 — the latest date statistics are available for. 

Around 3,000 cancer deaths are expected per week at this time of year. But the figure has been above the five-year average almost every week since mid-June.

This includes highs of 510 extra cancer fatalities on the week ending June 10 and an additional 229 on the week ending September 9. 

Professor Karol Sikora, consultant oncologist and founding dean at the University of Buckingham Medical School, described the cancer situation as a ‘total catastrophe’.

He told The Telegraph: ‘Even our treatment targets, which are continually missed, are seen as woefully inadequate in neighbouring countries.

‘Immeasurable more suffering is to come — where is the Government press conference on this?’  

Cancer care plummeted in September. Just 60.5 per cent of patients started cancer treatment within two months of being referred for chemotherapy or radiotherapy (red line). The figure is down from 61.9 per cent one month earlier and is the lowest ever recorded in records going back to October 2009. The NHS states 85 patients should start treatment within this timeframe

Cancer care plummeted in September. Just 60.5 per cent of patients started cancer treatment within two months of being referred for chemotherapy or radiotherapy (red line). The figure is down from 61.9 per cent one month earlier and is the lowest ever recorded in records going back to October 2009. The NHS states 85 patients should start treatment within this timeframe

The graph shows the number of new cancer diagnoses in England between January 2019 and June 2020. In April 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, new cancer diagnoses fell to 17,039, down by a third compared to 24,802 in March 2020

The graph shows the number of new cancer diagnoses in England between January 2019 and June 2020. In April 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, new cancer diagnoses fell to 17,039, down by a third compared to 24,802 in March 2020

NHS England figures show the five-year survival rates for different types of cancer. Rates are highest for lung, stomach and colon cancer

NHS England figures show the five-year survival rates for different types of cancer. Rates are highest for lung, stomach and colon cancer

Professor Pat Price, a leading oncologist and co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign, told the newspaper there is ‘frustration to the point of despair’ among cancer doctors. 

She warned the backlog is the ‘deadliest and most time-pressing of all’ and failing to tackle it will see excess cancer deaths for ‘years to come’.

Dr Charles Levison, CEO of private GP DoctorCall, told The Telegraph: ‘Clearly tens of thousands of people missing their cancer diagnosis was always going to result in excess death — I worry this is now starting to show.

‘We’ve had several patients who delayed for a variety of reasons during lockdown. 

‘That led to a more advanced stage of cancer developing, with the associated complications. Worsened outcomes are inevitable and tragically that will result in fatalities.’

It comes after GPs were last week ordered to send thousands more patients directly for scans in a bid to speed up cancer diagnoses and free-up hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments.

Health bosses want family doctors to bypass hospital medics and request more ultrasounds, brain MRIs and CT scans themselves.

At present, people with vague symptoms can face long waits for an appointment with a specialist, diagnostic tests and their first treatment.

But new guidance tells GPs to use their clinical judgment and order more scans for symptoms such as coughs, fatigue and dizziness — skipping the need to see a middle-man first.

It is expected to cut the typical wait for a routine diagnosis from around 12 weeks to four and free-up hundreds of thousands of hospital appointments. 

Latest NHS statistics show that cancer care plummeted in September.

Just 60.5 per cent of patients started cancer treatment within two months of being referred for chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The figure is down from 61.9 per cent a month earlier and is the lowest since records began in 2009.

The NHS states 85 per cent of patients should start treatment within this timeframe. 

And the proportion of cancer patients who saw a specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral has dropped to its lowest level on record.

Some 251,977 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in September, down from 255,055 the previous month but the highest number for the month of September in records going back to 2009.

However, only 72.6 per cent of patients had a first consultant appointment within two weeks — the worst performance on record. The health service’s own rule book states the rate should hit 93 per cent.

Meanwhile, just 67.2 per cent of patients with suspected cancer were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within four weeks. The figure is down from 69.5 per cent in September and is the second-worst performance in records going back to April 2021.

The NHS is supposed to confirm or rule out cancer within 28 days for three-quarters of patients by March 2024.

The health service pointed to figures showing 2.7million patients with suspected cancer were referred to a consultant in the year to September — 11 per cent higher than one year earlier.

And it is ‘diagnosing more patients with cancer at an earlier stage than ever before’. More than 100,000 patients were diagnosed with stage one or two cancer, the highest figure on record. The earlier cancer is spotted, the easier it is to treat.   

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