Last reviewed 16 November 2020

NHS England monthly performance statistics have revealed urgent referrals for patients with suspected cancer have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

September 2020 figures show that 199,801 patients were referred under the two-week wait of whom 86.2% were seen in 14 days. In September 2019, the figure was 195,196 with 90% seen within 15 days.

The number of patients referred under the urgent suspected cancer route during lockdown dropped dramatically. GPs raised concerns that patients were not coming forward, with just 106,535 patients referred in May, just over half the 200,599 referred a year earlier, showing a drop of 47% in May. By August, the numbers returned to around 85% of pre-pandemic levels.

Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Honorary Secretary Dr Steve Mowle said this showed how general practice that was open for business has been throughout the pandemic and that "GPs are taking the identification of potential cancers, and subsequently making referrals, seriously".

The Health Foundation said the return to pre-pandemic levels of referrals was a "major milestone" for the NHS and "testament to the huge efforts of NHS staff".

However, Health Foundation Senior Policy Fellow Tim Gardner highlighted how "more people are experiencing longer waits for routine hospital care with 139,545 patients waiting over a year."

He said he was concerned that ongoing delays for routine hospital care would "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 foundation found that, during the first 8 months of 2020, 4.7 million fewer patients in England were referred for consultant-led, routine hospital care compared to 2019; a reduction of 34%.

The report authors said this was due to a number of factors, including GPs not being able to refer patients to services that were suspended and patients being more reluctant to seek care during the pandemic.