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Number of breast cancer screenings dropped by 44% last year

Care staff

By Jess Hacker
24 February 2022

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Just 1.19 million people aged 45 and over were screened for breast cancer in 2020-21, representing a 44% drop on the year before.

New data, published by NHS Digital, revealed a similar decrease among women aged between 50 and 70 during the same period, with the number of people screened dropping by 39% from 1.84 million to 1.12 million.

Overall, there were 39% fewer cancers detected among women aged 45 and over last year, with just 10,813 identified in 2020-21 compared to the previous years’ 17,771.

NHS Digital said that the NHS Breast Screening Programme was ‘seriously impacted’ by disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The data revealed:

  • Uptake for routine invitations among 50- to 70-year-olds dropped from 1.79 million (69%) to 1.08 million (62%)
  • Coverage, measured among women aged 53-70, dropped by around 10 percentage points to 64%
  • The total proportion of over-45s referred for assessment rose from 3.6% to 4%

At the onset of the pandemic, all 78 screening units in England made their own decision to pause screening for around three months in order to redeploy staff as part of the Covid response.

The majority of services were not able to recontinue screenings until July 2020, which resulted in a significant backlog of women waiting to be seen ‘across the pathway’, it said.

Self-isolation requirements and shielding may also have contributed to the decrease in people presenting for screenings, it added.

The fall in breast cancer screenings occurred despite a PHE-supported restoration programme, which saw open invitations recommended over timed invitations for most women to maximise capacity.

It comes after a London-based CCG last month informed GPs that waits for suspected breast cancer referrals were ranging from 22 days upwards across five hospitals in London.

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