The number of people being seen for cancer treatment within 62 days of an urgent GP referral has dropped across the country – and in Shropshire at the county's major hospitals.
Cancer charity Macmillan said it is concerned at disruption to treatment, and that people are still reluctant to come forward for checks because of the impact of the Covid crisis.
Shrewsbury & Telford Hospital NHS Trust (SaTH), which manages both Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital in Telford, has seen the number of people treated within the target time drop to 72 per cent in February.
Its chief executive, Louise Barnett, has said the hospitals are prioritising cancer patients after high levels of Covid impacted its services.
Mair Dyer, Macmillan strategic partnership manager in the Midlands, said: “This data further illustrates the catastrophic impact that Covid-19 has had on cancer diagnoses and treatment.
"We have seen many of our local NHS partners doing everything they can to avoid disruption to cancer services and, in many cases, they have changed the way their clinics are operating to ensure people are getting the right treatment and support.
"Whilst we see there has been a marginal improvement in terms of urgent referrals, the number of people starting treatment remains lower than we’d expect.
"We are concerned that more people are still missing a diagnosis due to disruption caused by the pandemic or their reluctance to get checked for fear of overwhelming the system and this could affect their prognosis. We’re actively encouraging people to speak to their GP if they’re worried about any signs or symptoms they may have.
“It’s vital that cancer services continue to be prioritised and that those with cancer are not forgotten. To address the extensive challenges that lie ahead, the NHS urgently needs a long-term, fully funded plan for its workforce, ensuring there are more dedicated staff are able to provide the best care for cancer patients, now and in the future.”
A group of MPs, charities and Royal Colleges are also calling on the Government to provide urgent funding for cancer services to tackle the Covid-19 induced backlog and “save thousands of lives.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the Government is committed to providing high quality cancer care, with cancer diagnosis and treatment remaining “a top priority” throughout the pandemic.
“More than 2.5 million urgent referrals were made within waiting time targets in the past year alone and for every coronavirus patient, two cancer patients received treatment,” they added.
Patient hails dedication of staff
A cancer patient who has been receiving immunotherapy throughout the pandemic has described the last year’s health workers as “lions led by donkeys”.
Telford man John McIntear, 62, lives with lung cancer and is in regular contact with professionals at the Lingen Davies Centre at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. He began immunotherapy cycles a little over a year ago and said the health staff have adapted admirably.
He is full of praise for the nurses and doctors who have worked tirelessly over the last year to help people like him despite the issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, but referred to recent structural problems including those that led to the trust being placed into special measures in 2018. He also warned that many health professionals will likely suffer from something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they have seen.
Mr McIntear, a cricket umpire, said that Covid issues could well have impacted on the patient experience but that health workers in his experience have been trying their hardest: “What does need to be recognised is the dedication of the staff – the nurses and the consultants.”