Patients took the Government’s message to stay at home and protect the NHS “literally”, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has said, warning that three million people have missed vital screenings.

New analysis by the charity has also found that more than 350,000 have not been urgently referred for a cancer check who should have been.

The charity has warned of “lengthening queues” for diagnosis and treatment, with understaffed oncology units struggling to work through the backlog.

The biggest monthly fall in the number of urgent suspected cancer referrals was in April, with the numbers improving since then.

However, certain types of cancer are still lagging significantly behind pre-pandemic levels.

Lung cancer referrals at the end of September were still at only 60 per cent, when compared with the previous year, with 16,000 fewer patients getting an early referral since March.

Experts are concerned that these patients in particular have not come forward since the start of the pandemic because if somebody has a cough – potentially a symptom of lung cancer – “they’re a pariah”.

The new figures form part of a wider emerging picture that significant numbers of patients missed out on seeing a cancer specialist early in the progress of their disease, either because they could not get access or they chose to stay away from the NHS.

Michelle Mitchell, CRUK chief executive, said: “I think people took the message literally, didn’t they, as in ‘stay home and protect the NHS’.” 

“What we have to say now is the NHS is open for business.

“If you’ve got signs and symptoms go to your GP, because we need to ensure people are coming forward early with those signs and symptoms and are referred appropriately.”

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