Urgent referrals for patients with suspected cancer have returned to pre-pandemic levels, NHS England monthly performance statistics show.
The Health Foundation said it was a ‘major milestone’ for the health service and ‘testament to the huge efforts of NHS staff’.
Figures for September 2020 show that 199,801 patients were referred under the two week wait of whom 86.2% were seen in 14 days. In September 2019, that figure was 195,196 with 90% seen within 15 days.
During lockdown the number of patients referred under the urgent suspected cancer route had dropped dramatically with GPs raising concerns that patients were not coming forward.
In May just 106,535 patients were referred, a drop of almost half of the figures in May 2020.
By August this had returned to around 85% of pre-pandemic levels.
Dr Steve Mowle, RCGP honorary secretary, said the figures showed that general practice is open for business as has been throughout the pandemic ‘and that GPs are taking the identification of potential cancers, and subsequently making referrals, seriously’.
But performance remains below expected levels on measures such time to decision to start treatment and the 62-day target from referral to start of treatment, the Health Foundation said.
And more people are experiencing longer waits for routine hospital care, they warned.
It comes as Health and Social Care Select Committee chair Jeremy Hunt criticised the government for failing to meet the deadline to respond to the committee’s report which raised concerns about waiting times and a backlog of appointments and burnt out NHS staff.
‘Disruption to cancer services alone risks tens of thousands avoidable deaths. It is deeply concerning that we’ve had no response to our request for a clear strategy to tackle waiting times and the huge backlog of appointments, among other critical areas, by the end of October,’ he said.
Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation said: ‘The concern is that ongoing delays for routine hospital care will increase the hidden backlog of unmet care needs that the NHS will have to contend with, alongside the increased pressures that come with winter.
‘Analysis by the Health Foundation has found that there were 4.7 million fewer people referred for routine hospital care between January and August 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
He said there was no simple solution and addressing the backlog would take time, money and determination.’
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said the number of people on treatment waiting lists was ‘truly concerning’.
The number of people waiting over a year for treatment after being referred, which stands at 139,545, is the highest since 2008 and 107 times greater than in September 2019.
‘These are poorly patients, getting steadily more ill as they wait and wait to get the care and treatment they need,’ said Dr Nagpaul.
He added that the news of a Covid vaccine ‘is welcome but it could still be many weeks or even months before any are widely available or that GP practices are properly resourced to vaccinate large numbers of people’ and was therefore ‘unlikely to be in time to help reduce hospital admissions this winter’.
He said: ‘The Government must provide an urgent and comprehensive plan, backed by appropriate funding across secondary, primary and community care to help frontline services cope this winter.’
“Without this, we will be left to deal with the impact of this national health crisis long after the risk of Covid subsides.’