Latest NHS figures yesterday showed the proportion of eligible women who were up to date with screening rose slightly in 2019-20, to 72.2 percent. But Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust warned that the picture will now have changed as a result of the crisis.
Research by the charity has shown people at higher risk of developing severe Covid-19 and those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities were less likely to attend screening during the pandemic.
Chief executive Robert Music said: “In a ‘normal’ year an increase in attendance could be a glimmer of hope.
“However, this year it must come with a dose of reality as these numbers represent the state of play before the pandemic.
“It is hard to say what the picture is now, but we have new challenges to contend with as a result of Covid-19 which include disruptions to services and public uncertainty about attending at the moment.”
Some 4.63 million women aged 25-64 were invited for screening in the 12 months to March 2020, an increase of five percent on the previous year.
However, the number actually tested fell 6.8 percent to 3.2 million.
Overall, 72.2 percent of eligible women were up to date, up from 71.9 percent previously.
Coverage had increased in all regions but varied widely, ranging from 49.8 percent in Kensington and Chelsea (London) to 80.2 percent in Rutland (East Midlands).
Mr Music said: “What this new data shows is there is a clear need for systemic change in the cervical screening programme to see a bigger impact on uptake.
“There have long been widespread inequalities in access to screening. We are concerned, that not only does the pandemic mean they have not been addressed but instead widened.”
Mr Music added: “For those who found it difficult to attend before the pandemic, such as people with a physical disability, lockdowns have only made the test harder and specialist clinics for survivors of sexual violence had to close.
“Our NHS faces the huge challenge this winter of delivering Covid-19 vaccination programme, while maintaining vital services such as cancer.
“Cervical screening remains the best protection against cervical cancer and it is essential that the UK government protects the cervical screening programme, throughout the pandemic and beyond.
“Nine women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK every day and unless we protect cervical screening, we will see this number rise.”