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75k potential missing cancer cases in 2020-2022, suggests latest NHS data

by | Dec 5, 2023

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The latest data from NHS England recorded 302,803 cases of cancer in the 2021/22, a rise from the 276,979 recorded in 2020/21 but still below pre-pandemic levels.

The data increases concerns around ‘missing’ cancer cases driven by people avoiding medical care to protect the NHS during COVID-19 and the consequent difficulties many people face seeing their GP or receiving medical treatment because of the record NHS backlog.

Screening coverage for cervical cancer has declined markedly. Among 25–49-year-olds coverage fell to 67% in 2022/23, a record low in the period 2009/10 to 2022/23. Among 50–64-year-olds, cervical screening coverage is flatlining at around 75% (a marked decline from the early 2010s when it reached as high as 80%) although bowel cancer screening coverage has risen to a record 72%, up from 56% in 2013/14.


Brett Hill, Head of Health & Protection at leading independent consultancy Broadstone, commented: “Compared to pre-pandemic levels there were around 50,000 fewer cancer cases than we might have expected in 2020/21 and a further 25,000 in 2021/22. While incidence rates for new cancer diagnosis recovered slightly in 2021/22, they were still well below pre-pandemic levels, and suggest around 25,000 potential cancer cases missed out of vitally needed prompt diagnosis and treatment.

“It represents a ticking public health time bomb with these cases likely to present further down the line at a time when treatment will be more complex, more expensive, and unfortunately may have less favourable outcomes.  

“The data also suggested that cervical screening coverage is beginning to decline across both the 25-49 age group and flatlining far below pre-pandemic levels among women aged 50-64. It is a positive that bowel cancer screening coverage is increasing rapidly among 60–74-year-olds.


“These screenings are crucial as it is so important to catch cancer as early as possible so that treatment is effective. It is little wonder we are seeing employers continuing to expand their provision of private healthcare support and health screening programmes so that workers are able to diagnose and treat any health issues as quickly as possible.”

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