Almost 1.6 million women were behind on their screenings even before the disruption brought about by coronavirus
More than 800,000 women did not take up their invite for potentially life-saving breast screening appointments in England in the year leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, figures show.
As they mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, experts are urging women across the UK to check for signs and symptoms of the disease and for those eligible to take up their invitations for routine screenings.
The NHS breast screening programme sees women aged between 50 and 71 invited every three years to undergo a mammogram (X-ray) designed to detect cancers that are too small to see or feel.
The latest available NHS Digital figures show that only 74.2% of eligible women aged 53 to 71 were up to date on their screenings as of March 2020 – meaning 1,591,353 had missed their appointments.
Coverage had fallen from 74.6% the year before – the fourth consecutive year of decline.
In 2019-20 alone, 2.6 million women aged 50 to 71 were invited for a screening, of which only 1.8 million (69.1%) had taken up the invite within six months. That means more than 800,000 women did not attend that year.
Coverage varies widely across the country. In Shropshire, 81.2% of 53 to 70 year olds had been screened within the last three years. But in Camden, just 54% had.
The national minimum target is 70%, but the NHS says all services should aim for 80%.
The minimum target was missed by 39 council areas in 2019-20. Only six hit 80%.
London has by far the lowest coverage, at 63.7%. Second lowest is the North West, on 72.3%
The East Midlands was leading the pack, with 77.1% of women adequately screened.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now, said a decline in screening uptake across the UK in recent years was already a "concern" prior to the pandemic.
The charity estimates 1.2 million fewer women had a screening in 2020 due to coronavirus-related disruption.
She said: "We must do all we can to increase the number of women taking up their invitation to breast screening, including text reminders, more convenient appointments and improving awareness of the programme.
"While screening comes with some risks to be aware of, we encourage women to attend their appointments when invited, including during the pandemic."
Baroness Morgan joined the NHS and Public Health England in urging women to seek medical advice if they notice any abnormal changes in their breasts.
Professor Anne Mackie, director of screening at PHE, added: "Finding cancer early means that treatment is more likely to be successful.
“While screening is a personal choice, we are analysing the barriers that deter some groups of women."
Breast screening is estimated to save 1,300 lives across England each year, but just 69% of women offered a screening nationally in 2019-20 took up the offer, compared to 71% the year before.
Different figures show in the same year, roughly 9,500 women across England died from breast cancer and more than 17,700 women aged 45 or over had the cancer detected.
With locally targeted interventions and the implementation of the PHE Screening Inequalities Strategy, the Government is currently working to ensure screening uptake is equal across the country.
An NHS spokeswoman said the health service is open, adding it is "vital" that people attend their breast screening when invited.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesman said it was providing record investment in an effort to tackle backlogs influenced by the pandemic and provide an extra nine million checks, scans and operations.
He added: "Most cancer services are back to or above pre-pandemic levels and nearly half a million people were checked for cancer in June and July, some of the highest numbers ever."
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