The impact of COVID-19 on cancer care

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people living with cancer has been significant. People living with cancer spent months shielding because of concerns that their diagnosis put them at more risk of becoming acutely unwell if they contracted with COVID-19. Many others experienced disruption to their cancer care and treatment.

Throughout the pandemic, Macmillan has been campaigning to make sure the voices of people with cancer are heard. We want to ensure experiences influence the decisions made by the NHS and governments across the UK.

Access to cancer care during the pandemic

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the NHS moved to an emergency footing in order to prepare for the huge wave of COVID-19 patients needing hospital care.

Despite this, many people with cancer have had vital appointments, surgeries and treatments postponed, cancelled or changed. This has had a devastating impact. Meanwhile, thousands more with possible cancer symptoms are too worried about catching COVID-19 to see their GP

The cancer backlog

Our new report The Forgotten 'C'? The impact of COVID-19 on cancer care investigates the true size of the backlog in cancer care:

  • Macmillan estimates that across the UK there are currently around 50,000 ‘missing diagnoses’ – meaning that compared to a similar timeframe last year, 50,000 fewer people have been diagnosed with cancer.
  • Thousands fewer people in 2020 have started treatment after a cancer diagnosis than in 2019. In England alone, between March and August 2020, around 30,000 fewer people had started their first cancer treatment compared to the year before.

Macmillan defines the cancer backlog as everyone who is currently missing a cancer diagnosis, which we would ordinarily expect them to have. This also includes everyone who is already ‘in the system’ waiting for treatment, scans or investigations for an existing cancer diagnosis.

What we are calling for

The report shows us that the Government must act now to reduce the backlog that has left thousands of people missing a cancer diagnosis or treatment.

Cancer services need to be protected to deliver even higher levels of activity than they did before the pandemic, to reduce the backlog for people waiting now and make sure it doesn’t grow during the second wave.

We are calling for Ministers and NHS services across the UK to prove this won’t happen again, and to promise that cancer will become the ‘Forgotten C’.

We want Governments to take the following actions:

  • Governments must prevent the cancer backlog from increasing by committing to ringfence cancer services.
  • The NHS must ringfence the capacity needed to keep COVID-protected cancer services running, with no redeployment of staffing or repurposing of resources.
  • Governments should commit to providing the additional resources required to increase capacity and reduce the cancer services backlog as soon as possible.
  • There must be a sustained public awareness and information campaign to encourage symptom awareness and provide reassurance to people about accessing primary care and other services so that they know that it is safe to do so.
  • Governments should urgently commit to the long-term investment needed to create a sustainable cancer workforce.
  • There should be ongoing and timely publication of data showing the scale of the backlog caused at local and national level, as well as progress in recovering services.
  • The NHS should confirm the existing commitments to deliver fully personalised care that meets people’s full range of physical, emotional and practical support needs. These should be explicit in both local and national recovery plans.
  • Health services need to provide much better communication with patients to address concerns of the safety of treatment, build confidence in the system and ensure people are involved in decisions about their care.
  • Governments must ensure that no person living with cancer is left behind and that health inequalities do not widen as a result of the pandemic.


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