The National Audit Office has warned that there are between 240,000 and 740,000 "missing" urgent GP doctor referrals for suspected cancer during the pandemic because millions of people have not been able to access healthcare or have avoided doing so.
The National Audit Office (NAO), the independent spending watchdog for the British government, warned in a report that hundreds of thousands of people in England who should have been referred by their doctor for suspected cancer have not been, while there may be tens of thousands fewer people starting cancer treatment than was expected.
A press release prefacing the report published on Wednesday said: "Millions of people have also avoided seeking or been unable to obtain referrals for healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The NAO estimates that there were between 240,000 and 740,000 'missing' urgent GP referrals for suspected cancer during the pandemic.
"In addition, the NAO estimates that up to September 2021 between 35,000 and 60,000 fewer people started treatment for cancer than would have been expected.
"Over the same period – March 2020 to September 2021 – the NAO estimates there were between 7.6 million and 9.1 million fewer referrals for elective care. The NAO recognises that there is inherent uncertainty about these estimates."
The reports are similar to several over the past year of suspected mass undiagnosed cancer cases, postponed surgeries, and predictions for thousands of potentially unnecessary cancer deaths because National Health Service (NHS) facilities and personnel had pivoted towards management of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
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Questioned on the NAO estimates, Health Secretary Sajid Javid told talkRADIO's Julia Hartley-Brewer on Wednesday: "We must never forget some of the actions taken in the past… have consequences beyond Covid."
"Whether it's cancer, it's heart disease, it's mental health challenges, these are all huge issues that remain as important and sadly, we have gone backwards on all three of those things and probably more because of some of the measures that were taken," Javid admitted.
However, GPs are expected to have more of their time diverted from primary care, after Number 10 announced that they will be integral to the booster vaccination programme.
Mr Javid told BBC Radio 4's Today programme in comments reported by The Telegraph on Wednesday that those GPs who have complained of being overworked that he would be looking at freeing up some of their time, saying: "Yes – this is our new national mission in terms of the public health of this country there is nothing more important.
"We are working at pace with GP representatives in the last two days, in how we can free up some of their time. I won't set that out now myself, it will be set out by NHS directly."
"This is a huge thing we are trying to achieve — it is essential that we do this," Javid added.
On Tuesday, NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard announced that GPs will be paid £15 for administering each booster shot Monday to Saturday, going up to £20 on Sunday, and £30 for home booster visits for the housebound.
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