Cancer Research UK called for urgent checks to ensure that patients had not been left to slip through the net.
Research has previously found that cancer referrals dropped by as much as 75 per cent in some areas at the peak of the virus pandemic.
Health chiefs have suggested much of this was because patients with symptoms had stayed at home, either because they feared putting pressure on the health service or were concerned about the risk of catching coronavirus.
But the new findings suggest that even when GPs referred patients with suspected cancer for diagnostic tests, hospitals increasingly refused to take them.
Cancer Research UK said this was likely to have been because of a lack of capacity and aims to reduce exposure to the virus, but expressed concern that such cases may now be “slipping through the net” without checks to see if such patients ever got tests.
Dr Richard Roope, a Cancer Research UK GP, urged the NHS to ensure that follow-up checks were organised for cases that had escaped proper investigation, saying: “GPs are doing all they can during these difficult times, and it’s alarming that referrals are being turned away.”
The charity estimates that, across the UK, there have been 300,000 fewer urgent referrals since lockdown – a fall of close to 40 per cent from the 800,000 that would have been expected.
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “It’s deeply concerning that suspected cancer patients are being refused hospital appointments despite being referred by their doctor, and even more worrying that they may be slipping through the net.
“The NHS says it’s open for business, which remains a really important message to encourage people to come forward with symptoms. So we need to be confident that patients will receive the care they need and able to reassure people that they won’t be lost in a system that is also facing a mounting backlog.”