NHS sees record number of people in March, following urgent cancer referrals

Hard working NHS staff saw a record number of people, who were referred for urgent cancer checks, in March, new figures have revealed today.

Almost quarter of a million people with suspected cancer were seen as NHS services began to bounce back after the peak of the winter COVID-19 wave.

More than 230,000 people were checked in March, alongside rapid progress by the NHS delivering the COVID-19 vaccination programme and providing care to 12,000 seriously ill patients with COVID requiring hospital treatment.

The latest statistics published today also confirm that for every COVID patient cared for by the NHS between January and March 2021, 18 other patients got treatment for non-COVID conditions, while NHS staff carried out 300,000 more diagnostic tests in March than in February.

Dame Cally Palmer, NHS Cancer Director said: “From COVID friendly cancer drugs to fast tracking specialist radiotherapy for patients, NHS staff have gone to great lengths to ensure cancer treatment could continue safely throughout the pandemic.

“It is welcome news that more people than ever before came forward for potentially life-saving checks in March, with the vast majority being seen very quickly.

“We are now going even further and faster in our ambitions to catch more cancers at an earlier stage so we can save more lives. And so our message has always been the same – please come forward if you have a worrying sign or symptom.”

During COVID-19, NHS teams have put a range of measures in place such as COVID protected cancer surgery hubs, so people could be treated safely, with more than 27,700 people starting their first NHS treatment for cancer during March, and more than 19 in 20 treated within the one month target.

The NHS has treated around 400,000 COVID hospital inpatients since the start of pandemic, including more than 100,000 in a single month alone, at the start of 2021.

The NHS is now seeking to accelerate the recovery of care services by trialling new ways of working in a dozen areas across England and five specialist children’s hospitals.

NHS elective accelerators will each receive a share of £160 million along with additional support to implement and evaluate innovative ways to increase the number of elective operations they deliver.

Professor Stephen Powis, National Medical Director for the NHS in England, said: “The NHS is ahead of progress in getting back to its pre-pandemic levels for routine care, and in March delivered 300,000 more diagnostic tests than in the previous month, while continuing to help more than 12,000 seriously ill people with COVID and also making world-beating progress towards giving out more than 45 million COVID vaccine doses.

“But we want to go further and faster on this recovery, which is why we’re investing £160 million on ways to tackle waiting lists and putting in place practical plans to speed up non-urgent operations, while also maintaining progress in vaccinating the country against COVID-19.”

In the first three months of 2021, the NHS treated over 150,000 COVID patients and admitted a further 2.75 million non-COVID patients.

Operations and other elective activity are already at four fifths of pre-pandemic levels in April this year, well ahead of the 70% target set out in official guidance.

Median waits for routine operations fell last month – from 12.6 weeks last month to 11.6 weeks – which is also significantly down from 19.6 weeks in July.

52 week waits are still below the previous historic high of 579,000 in August 2007.

The progress on routine care and maintaining of cancer services came despite NHS staff still dealing with thousands of COVID patients, having to take additional steps such as infection control measures to keep patients safe and rolling out the largest vaccination programme in health service history.