Nearly 8,900 more people have died of cancer than expected in Britain since the start of the pandemic, amid calls for the Government to appoint a minister to deal with the growing crisis.
In an essay in The Lancet Oncology, campaigners and medics said the upward trend of cancer deaths is likely to continue, with 3,327 in the last six months alone.
They urged the Government to tackle the crisis with the same focus and urgency given to the Covid vaccine rollout, and called for a cancer minister to get on top of the backlog.
NHS data from November showed that in the last 12 months, 69,000 patients in the UK have waited longer than the recommended 62-day wait from suspected cancer referral to start of treatment.
The experts warned that as well as the backlog, the NHS is also being hampered by obsolete IT systems and antiquated equipment, such as out of date radiotherapy machines that take twice as long to treat patients.
Professor Gordon Wishart, a former cancer surgeon and chief medical officer of Check4Cancer, said: “The Covid-induced cancer backlog is one of the deadliest backlogs and has served to widen the cracks in our cancer services.
“Readers will be shocked to learn that even before the pandemic, the UK was near the bottom of the cancer survival league tables.
“Now we face a deadly cancer timebomb of treatment delays that get worse every month because we don’t have a sufficiently ambitious plan from policymakers. I urge the Government to work with us.”
In Britain, many people were unable to access treatment as the health service focused on combating Covid.
Others were cautious about visiting hospitals for fear they would catch the virus. Many simply did not want to bother medics after the Government pleaded with the public to “protect the NHS”.
Dr Amar Ahmad, a GP of the Wilmslow Health Practice, said: “It’s very clear that Britain is in the midst of a growing cancer emergency.
“Just as there was a concerted national effort to tackle the Covid pandemic, we need a similar national drive to address the declining state of cancer diagnosis and treatment in the UK.
“Freeing up front-line clinicians from needless box-ticking NHS bureaucracy will go some way to improve the NHS capacity to tackle this emergency.”
Since the beginning of May, there have been far more excess deaths in England and Wales for non-Covid reasons.
Nearly 30,000 more people than would normally be expected have died in the past eight months, compared with around 8,800 due to Covid.
'Extensive collateral damage'
A separate report from the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that global excess deaths during the first two pandemic years were nearly three times higher than from Covid-19, leading to fears the crisis caused significant collateral damage.
The WHO found that there were 14.83 million excess deaths across the world in 2020 and 2021, compared with the 5.42 million Covid deaths reported.
Although a large amount of the discrepancy can be attributed to lack of testing, meaning Covid deaths were under-reported, the authors warned that the pandemic had also “caused extensive collateral damage that has led to losses of lives and livelihoods”.
The WHO team said countries had seen disruption to essential health services and said it is hoping to tease out the causes in future work.
The research was published in the journal Nature.