Up to 740,000 potential cancer cases that should have been urgently referred by GPs have been “missed” since the first lockdown, according to a damning report.
Watchdogs also warned that NHS waiting lists could keep growing until 2025 and even reach double the current six million.
Charities said the report by the National Audit Office (NAO) reflected a “devastating” situation for many patients, with medics warning of “the biggest cancer catastrophe ever to hit the NHS”.
MPs said the situation was likely to get worse before it gets better, with millions of patients who should have been referred for care during the pandemic now missing from waiting lists.
Waiting lists could reach 12 million by March 2025
Latest figures show 5.9 million people waiting – around a 10th of the population.
The NAO estimates that between 7.6 million and 9.1 million fewer referrals for treatment were made during the pandemic, because of difficulties accessing care and fears of catching the virus.
It estimated that if 50 per cent of missing referrals returned to the NHS, and activity grew in line with pre-pandemic expectations, the waiting list would reach 12 million by March 2025.
The report expresses particular concern about a sharp fall in urgent referrals by GPs to hospitals, for cases of suspected cancer.
The NAO estimates a shortfall of between 240,000 and 740,000 missing referrals as a result of people struggling to get appointments with GPs, or keeping away from the NHS for fear of Covid or being a burden on services.
In turn, between 35,000 and 60,000 fewer people started treatment for cancer than would have been expected over the period.