Beating bowel cancer together

Coronavirus disruption will lead to avoidable cancer deaths

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Disruption to cancer care caused by the pandemic could see bowel cancer survival rates return to those last seen in 2010, a new report published today warns.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on ambitious targets set out in the NHS Long Term Plan, which had highlighted the need for better prevention and earlier diagnosis to improve cancer outcomes in England.

The crisis has seen bowel cancer screening paused around the UK, fewer people visiting their GP with symptoms and concerns, and delays to diagnosis and treatment.

The State of Health and Care report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has warned an additional 4,500 avoidable cancer deaths are expected this year alone because of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus crisis.

The proportion of cancers diagnosed while still highly curable has dropped from 44 per to cent 41 per cent, undoing years of progress on colorectal and other cancer survival rates.

The report lays bare the 'severe' strain on the NHS and the devastating impact on patients of the pandemic. It says an extra £12 billion a year is needed to recover and develop world-leading care for future generations.

Dr Lisa Wilde, our Director of Research and External Affairs, said: "A full year on since the UK locked down and everyone was told to stay at home, we're seeing a much clearer picture of the true scale and impact the pandemic has had on bowel cancer patients. Screening services, diagnostics and treatment have all been hugely affected, and this report warns that five-year survival rates for bowel cancer patients could return us to those last seen a decade ago as a result, which is really shocking.

"While the NHS has worked incredibly hard to keep essential bowel cancer services running throughout the crisis, there is no doubt that bowel cancer patients – and those experiencing symptoms of the disease – have been disproportionately affected by disruptions, and may face poorer outcomes in the future.

"More than 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year, and the issues outlined by the IPPR highlight how we've been sailing towards a perfect storm for those with the disease.

"The NHS remains stretched, but has seized opportunities to innovate, providing cancer care away from hospitals, using digital consultations, and training patients to self-administer treatment such as chemotherapy at home. However, it needs more investment in staff and diagnostics such as MRI and endoscopy, to help clear existing backlogs and ensure more lives are not needlessly lost to bowel cancer over the coming years."

The IPPR says that the strain the pandemic has put on the NHS in England is severe, but manageable if urgent action is taken by the Government. The think tank calculates that just to recover the backlog and manage the mental health surge caused by the pandemic, the NHS budget needs an extra £2.2 billion every year for next five years.

However, the report urges the government to go further than just restoring the NHS to its already dangerously overstretched pre-pandemic level. The researchers instead set out a blueprint for ambitious reform across the health and care sector in England, defining what the Government's 'build back better' mantra should look like in reality.

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