Breast Cancer Now has said that around 12,000 women could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer due to missing out on NHS screenings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The charity estimates there has been a 50 per cent rise in the number of women in the UK who have not had vital breast screening since services restarted last summer.

Overall, it thinks that almost 1.5 million fewer women had breast screenings between March 2020 and May 2021 when compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Reasons for this include disruption to NHS services in the last year and a half which has seen fewer women being referred to specialists with possible symptoms, especially as screenings were put on hold at the height of the pandemic.

As a result this could mean that almost 12,000 people could be living with breast cancer without knowing it.

Breast Cancer Now said that for NHS England to meet its March 2022 target of addressing the shortfall in people starting cancer treatment, an extra 10,000 people would need to have started treatment for breast cancer between May 2021 and March 2022.

However, it said it is unclear how an already overstretched NHS workforce will be able to meet this demand.

The Royal College of Radiologists has also echoed the views of the charity, telling the PA News Agency that imaging and treatment services were “massively under-resourced” even before the pandemic.

It added that breast screening teams are now trying to fit two years’ worth of appointments into one year.

What can be done to clear the backlog?

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, spoke to the PA News Agency on the topic.

She said: “A year ago we reported with concern that almost one million women had potentially missed breast screening due to services being paused in the first wave of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, despite our hardworking NHS staff, screening services running at reduced capacity means that now 1.5 million fewer women have been screened – a staggering 50 per cent increase since services restarted.

“Women with breast cancer are continuing to pay the price due to the impact of the pandemic and, in the worst cases, delayed diagnoses could mean that some women die of this devastating disease.

“Quickly finding and treating those with undiagnosed breast cancer must be a priority, and governments across the UK must urgently ensure there is sufficient investment to do this – these women do not have time to wait.”

She said there needed to be “urgent investment in the chronically understaffed imaging and diagnostic workforce” to tackle the backlog and help ensure women with possible symptoms see a specialist quickly.

“Only then will women receive the best care and have the best chances of survival,” she added.

Dr Jeanette Dickson, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, also spoke to the PA News Agency and said: “Breast services, including screening, are working flat out to make sure patients are seen as quickly as possible, and we cannot urge people enough: if you have any worrying symptoms, please seek help from your GP. If you are given a screening appointment, please take it.

“If the Government is serious about improving breast cancer outcomes and tackling the backlog then in the short term it has to continue investing in scanners and IT connectivity, as well as push through stalled service improvements.

“But ultimately, we cannot get away from the need to invest in people. The NHS needs more imaging and oncology staff to ensure future breast cancer patients get the care they deserve.”