Hundreds of thousands fewer referrals for suspected cancer were made by GPs in England during the course of the pandemic, according to a new analysis.
This has led to tens of thousands fewer people than expected being diagnosed with cancer, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.
It also warned that in less than three years the NHS waiting list for people with all ailments could double.
The NAO estimated that by March 2025, some 12 million people could be caught up in the backlog of care—which equates to 21 percent of the population, or one in five people.
The number of people waiting for hospital care currently stands at a record 5.83 million—up from 4.43 million in February 2020 before the start of the pandemic.
Specifically on cancer, the NAO said that it was “impossible” for the NHS to fully maintain cancer care throughout the crisis.
Millions of people have “avoided seeking, or been unable to obtain healthcare” during the pandemic, the NAO said in its latest report (pdf) on NHS backlogs in England.
The NAO estimates that in England there were between 240,000 and 740,000 “missing” urgent GP referrals for suspected cancer during the period of the pandemic up to September 2021.
In turn, between 35,000 and 60,000 fewer people started treatment for cancer than would have been expected.
By June 2021, cancer services had recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
But in September “only 68 [percent] of patients requiring treatment within 62 days of urgent referral by their GP were receiving that treatment on time,” the NAO said.
In addition to the missing cancer referrals, the NAO said that there were between 7.6 million and 9.1 million “missing” referrals for elective care over the same period.
The authors of the report said that it is uncertain how many “missing” cases will return to the NHS for treatment, or how quickly the NHS will be able to resume usual activity.
It estimated that if 50 percent of missing referrals return to the NHS, and activity grows in line with pre-pandemic plans, the waiting list would reach 12 million by March 2025.
But if 50 percent of missing referrals return, and the NHS can increase activity by 10 percent more than was planned, the waiting list will be seven million in March 2025, according to the estimates.
Commenting on the report, Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The pandemic has heaped yet more pressure on a care system that was already creaking under the strain.”
Hillier said “things will get worse before they get better,” and that “time will tell whether the extra funding and government’s new recovery strategy will be enough to address the backlogs.”