New figures showing a “worrying drop” in the number of Scots starting cancer treatment have led to calls for Government action.
Cancer charities made the demand as the latest statistics also showed a key waiting-time target for treating those with the disease had been missed.
The Scottish Government had previously set the standard of having 95% of all patients referred by a GP with an urgent suspicion of cancer, or patients who have been referred after screening, starting treatment within 62 days.
Public Health Scotland statistics for the period July to September showed that target was achieved for 87.3% of patients started treatment over the three-month period.
The same figures also showed a drop of 23.9% in the number of patients being referred for treatment, compared to the same time last year.
Between July and September there were 4,970 people referred under the 31-day standard – which sets out that treatment should begin within a month of doctors deciding how best to care for a patient.
The Public Health Scotland report said: “The reduction in eligible referrals is likely to be due to a combination of patients not seeking out help so as to be referred, and because of delays in patients having diagnostic tests and/or starting treatment because hospitals have been treating Covid-19 patients.”
Cancer Research UK calculated that drop meant there were 1,560 fewer Scots starting treatment than when compared to the same three-month period in 2019.
Marion O’Neill, the charity’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said: “We can see from this report that the pandemic has led to a worrying drop in the number of people being diagnosed with cancer and starting treatment.
“While services are slowly recovering, we remain concerned about the ongoing backlog of people waiting to receive a test and cancer diagnosis.”
“It’s hard to see how things will improve significantly unless plans are put in place to address the long-standing staff shortages which exist within these cancer services.”
Lorraine Sloan, strategic partnership manager at Macmillan Cancer Support in Scotland, branded the latest figures “deeply concerning”.
She said: “They reveal for the second quarter in a row there has been a staggering drop in the number of people waiting for, and starting, cancer treatment.
“There are now thousands of people in Scotland with undiagnosed cancers who face more challenging treatment or even being told their cancer is incurable.”
She insisted ministers must “ensure the cancer care system is ready to cope with the flood of people into the system, even with the challenges of Covid and winter pressures”.
Scottish Conservative public health spokesman Brian Whittle said: “While our NHS rightly continues to prioritise tackling Covid, it’s alarming that the number of cancer referrals has continued to drop so significantly, even as services were up and running again.
“We all know that early diagnosis and treatment is one of the most valuable tools in improving cancer survival rates.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Limiting the impact of coronavirus (Covid-19) on cancer patients has remained a top priority throughout the pandemic and the statistics clearly show that once a decision to treat was made, cancer patients in Scotland waited on average three days for treatment and our NHS staff have worked hard to maintain this high standard.
“We need to do more to improve performance on the 62-day standard, recognising we remain in the middle of a global pandemic of a deadly virus.
“The extent to which we can, together, suppress the virus will help the NHS remobilise services. The recently published cancer recovery plan sets out a number of agreed and important steps on which work is under way.”
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