The coronavirus pandemic could create a significant cancer crisis in Scotland which could see progress on reducing death rates stall or even reverse, campaigners have warned.
A briefing paper by Cancer Research UK raised fears diagnoses could be missed as fewer referrals for suspected cancer are being made during the Covid-19 crisis.
The charity warned coronavirus could be creating “an extremely worrying backlog of people that need to be assessed”.
It added: “We are in danger of creating another, potentially more significant, cancer crisis, particularly as diagnostic services were struggling with capacity before Covid-19.”
Screening programmes have been paused as the NHS focuses much of its efforts on tackling coronavirus.
The charity said: “Despite national guidelines stating that urgent and essential cancer treatments must continue, we do not believe this is happening consistently across Scotland,” and it called for treatment to return to pre-Covid-19 levels “as soon as possible”.
Its briefing paper, prepared for Holyrood’s Cross Party Group (CPG) on Cancer, said surgery for cancer patients has been “impacted most severely” by coronavirus, stating “many patients requiring major surgery aren’t getting it”.
Clinical trials for potential new treatments have been “severely disrupted”, the report added, and it highlighted “particular concern” about the capacity of diagnostic services.
It said: “Before the Covid-19 crisis, diagnostic capacity was already stretched, with around one in 10 diagnostic posts unfilled across the NHS.
“Without a clear workforce plan, progress on cancer survival in Scotland could stall and perhaps even reverse.”
NHS statistics last year showed that over the last decade, the overall risk of dying from cancer had fallen by 10%.
The charity insisted: “It is vital that a clear plan is put in place for restoring cancer services which focuses on making sure that treatment provision returns to pre-Covid-19 levels as quickly as possible, and that there is adequate diagnostic workforce and testing capacity to cope with the potential backlog in cancer diagnoses.
“It is also important that screening programmes and clinical trials are restarted as quickly as possible.”
Labour MSP Anas Sarwar, co-chair of the CPG, said: “There is a risk of an unprecedented cancer crisis in Scotland.
“Cancer services in Scotland were already struggling due to major NHS staff shortages, but the Covid-19 outbreak means referrals are plummeting.
“The sad reality is that many people may die of cancer in the future because they are not receiving early treatment now.”
Fellow CPG co-chair and Tory MSP Miles Briggs added: “There is significant and increasing concern in the medical and cancer sector at the negative impact the ongoing pause on cancer services and screening will have on patients’ cancer outcomes in Scotland.
“It is now approaching a month since NHS England resumed pre-coronavirus cancer treatment levels – we need to see urgent action to do the same here.
“The Scottish Government must publish a plan to deal with the current backlog of operations and treatments and give everyone access to the healthcare they need before it’s too late.
“We have made good progress in recent years to save lives and improve the survivability of many cancers in Scotland. All that progress could be under threat if we don’t see action from SNP ministers and a cancer services and research recovery plan.”
The Scottish Government said it is already in discussion with Cancer Research UK over its recommendations – saying many of them “describe existing or planned activity”.
A spokesman added: “The majority of cancer treatments have continued through this pandemic. Some patients’ treatment plans have changed after discussion between them and their clinical team due to Covid-19 risks, and we are focused on continuing to ensure patients receive the best possible treatments.
“Cancer remains a clinical priority in Scotland and we are working to ensure equal access to treatment for all cancer patients in Scotland through the next phase.”