Up to 2,000 cancer referrals are being missed every week, it emerged on Sunday , as the Government prepares to launch an NHS “open for business” campaign.
Referrals under the two-week wait system, in which suspected cancer patients referred by GPs are seen within a fortnight, have fallen by up to 70 per cent in the last month.
It is feared that those with symptoms are failing to contact their family doctor because they do not want to burden an already overwhelmed system and may also fear catching coronavirus if required to seek treatment.
However, without assessment such cases will stack up, creating a backlog that causes a much more significant problem for the NHS in the long term.
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said she was aware of decreases of up to 70 per cent in referrals.
“Either people are not presenting to their GPs in the first place, or they are presenting but GPs are not referring them,” she said. “GPs have said there has been a huge reduction in appointments being made, especially in those ‘query cancer’ appointments, so there is concern that patients with symptoms are not coming forward.”
In West Yorkshire and Harrogate, referrals are understood to have dropped by around 70 per cent. In parts of Liverpool they have halved over the last month, while across London they have dropped by around a third.
The Government has repeatedly stressed that the NHS remains open for business.
As concern in the medical community mounts that patients not only with suspected cancer but also potential heart attack and stroke victims are not seeking help, a major public awareness campaign is planned.
Advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi is understood to be working on the campaign without payment.
Ms Hiom said there were around 2.2 million referrals under the two-week wait system every year, equating to around 42,000 a week. When reduced by 70 per cent, this means some 30,000 referrals a week are not being made.
Of those, around seven per cent of patients will be diagnosed with cancer, meaning that around 2,000 cases a week are not being entered into the system.
Ms Hiom urged anyone with concerning symptoms to contact their local surgery, insisting they largely remained open for virtual appointments.
“GPs really want people to know that they are open for business,” she said. “Surgeries are not overwhelmed. If you do not come forward, you are not in the system for priority treatment when clinics reopen.”
Professor Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “During the pandemic, people are still living with long term conditions and becoming sick with non-Covid related illnesses, which if left undiagnosed or untreated could have very serious consequences. We have seen this happen in other pandemics.
“Covid-19 is understandably at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but GPs and their teams are are still working hard in the community, delivering care to patients with other conditions as well.
“We ask patients to use the NHS wisely, but urge them not to put off seeking medical attention if they are seriously ill or have concerns – particularly in cases such as suspected cancers – for fear of overburdening the system or of contracting the virus.”
Dr Rosie Loftus, the chief medical officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the drop in GP cancer referrals was “concerning”.
“These are exceptional circumstances for health and care services which are working incredibly hard to respond,” she said. “However, fast diagnosis must also continue to be delivered, so anyone with suspected cancer symptoms shouldn’t hesitate to contact their GP.
“Vital cancer care must be maintained through this crisis, and the NHS has rightly committed to ensuring all essential and urgent cancer treatment continues.”