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Fears up to 600,000 women are at risk as cervical smear tests are cancelled or missed in lockdown

The cancellation of cervical cancer checks because of Covid pressures is putting women’s lives at risk, a senior MP and charities have warned.

Tory MP Caroline Nokes, who chairs the Women and Equalities Select Committee, said that check-up cancellations and women’s fears of attending GP clinics during the pandemic could mean up to 600,000 women miss out on getting a smear test. 

She warned against women’s medical issues being ‘pushed to the back of the proverbial queue’.

It comes as Marina Wheeler, Boris Johnson’s ex-wife, said women should not put off cervical screening during the pandemic because the ‘consequences of not going can be so great’. 

Left waiting: Michelle Wright, pictured above with her son Hugo, was told the backlog of appointments caused by the first lockdown meant she would have to wait at least 12 weeks

Ms Wheeler told The Daily Telegraph her own cancer was spotted early thanks to a routine smear test.

During the first national lockdown, smear test services were paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as in some practices in England. The Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust charity estimated 600,000 fewer tests than normal were carried out last April and May.

Ms Nokes, who raised the subject with the Prime Minister last week, said she was concerned a similar number of tests could be cancelled or missed during this lockdown.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday ahead of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, Ms Nokes says: ‘Is it because cervical cancer is exclusively a female cancer that it seems to be OK to not carry them out “at the moment”? I felt real hope that predominantly female cancers were not going to be forgotten during the pandemic. But apparently my optimism was misplaced.’

Roz Chadd, a Conservative councillor in Hampshire, was last week told by her local GP surgery that she could not have a smear test. She said she was worried women were being ‘forgotten’.

Dr Jodie Moffat, Cancer Research UK’s head of early diagnosis, said: ‘It’s concerning to hear reports that cervical screening is being cancelled in some parts of the country again. In the first wave, decisions to pause screening in England were made locally in the absence of national guidance.

Councillor Roz Chadd, 36, received a letter last Monday summoning her to her smear test. She called her GP the same day but was told check-ups had been suspended

Councillor Roz Chadd, 36, received a letter last Monday summoning her to her smear test. She called her GP the same day but was told check-ups had been suspended

‘This time, NHS England should provide clear guidance based on expert advice to ensure there is a consistent approach across the country, instead of certain areas making their own decision.’

Women are invited to have smear tests every three years between the ages of 25 and 49, and then every five years until they reach 65.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said: ‘While it is not ideal if you can’t get a test, and you may be feeling worried, cervical cancer takes many years, not months, to develop and remains rare. It’s unlikely that it would develop in the time that your appointment is delayed. If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of cervical cancer, whether you are waiting for a test, up to date, or have never been, contact your GP.’

A spokesman for the NHS said: ‘The NHS guidance that cervical screening should continue has not changed and this has been communicated to GP practices.’

Anxiety of missing out on crucial tests

When Michelle Wright received a reminder to get a smear test last autumn, she was told the backlog of appointments caused by the first lockdown meant she would have to wait at least 12 weeks.

Ms Wright, who had an operation to remove cancerous cells after they were spotted in a smear test seven years ago, was keen to get a check-up booked in, so she tried again last month.

Her Farnborough, Hampshire, surgery texted her to say it was ‘reducing appointments’ and postponing hers ‘for the time being’. It said that because Ms Wright, 34, had been ‘OK’ since her treatment to remove cancerous cells in 2014, she was not deemed to be ‘high risk’.

The HR manager said this made her ‘anxious’, because she had not had a smear test since her son, Hugo, was born two years ago.

Roz Chadd, 36, received a letter last Monday summoning her to her smear test.

The Conservative councillor in Hampshire called her GP the same day but was told check-ups had been suspended.

Why is it always women stuck at the back of the queue?

By Caroline Nokes for the Mail on Sunday

Earlier last week I received a reminder that my cervical screen was due, and tweeted about it, expecting the usual reaction from those who do not like discussing things below the waist.

The response I actually received was an email from a Hampshire resident about smear tests not being carried out ‘at the moment’.

So I was one of the lucky ones. My test is this week – which is also Cervical Cancer Prevention Week.

Others have not been so lucky, however, and it leads me to ask: is it because cervical cancer affects exclusively women that it’s been deemed acceptable not to carry out the tests ‘at the moment’?

Prevention is, as we all know, better than cure, and early detection of abnormal cells is the best way to make sure treatment is prompt and lives are not lost unnecessarily, writes Caroline Nokes (file photo)

Prevention is, as we all know, better than cure, and early detection of abnormal cells is the best way to make sure treatment is prompt and lives are not lost unnecessarily, writes Caroline Nokes (file photo)

Covid-19 and the vaccination programme are the number one priority, of course, and I take my hat off to all those brilliant medical staff and volunteers on the front line of the largest ever peacetime logistics operation. They are doing an incredible job and the number of people who have already been vaccinated is outstanding.

But do women’s medical issues have to get pushed to the back of the proverbial queue? Following my colleague Tracey Crouch’s brave decision to talk so publicly about her breast cancer diagnosis, and the exhortations to check our ‘bits and bobbins’ for signs of cancer, I felt real hope that predominantly female cancers were not going to be forgotten during the pandemic. But apparently my optimism was misplaced.

Prevention is, as we all know, better than cure, and early detection of abnormal cells is the best way to make sure treatment is prompt and lives are not lost unnecessarily.

I don’t know what ‘at the moment’ means, or how long it will take for services to be reinstated in all those surgeries that have cancelled them. I don’t know for women with currently undetected cervical cancer how long is too long. But I do know that take-up of screening was already too low, and in the pandemic it has dropped still further. So surely those women trying to make appointments should be able to access this vital service?

Last year, the Women and Equalities Select Committee, which I chair, started looking at the gendered economic impact of Covid, the impact on BAME people and the impact on access to services for people with disabilities.

Studies show women have carried the greatest share of home schooling, that there are real concerns about accessibility of childcare, that their careers have suffered (file photo)

Studies show women have carried the greatest share of home schooling, that there are real concerns about accessibility of childcare, that their careers have suffered (file photo)

The reports we have published so far have been striking, those with protected characteristics have been hard hit by the pandemic in myriad ways. 

Studies show women have carried the greatest share of home schooling, that there are real concerns about accessibility of childcare, that their careers have suffered. According to the Trades Union Congress, in this latest lockdown, 70 per cent of working mothers who asked to be furloughed for childcare reasons were refused.

Pregnant Then Screwed found in their survey that of women made redundant, 46 per cent said a lack of childcare played a role.

The 2020 Mumsnet survey was incredibly stark, a near 80 per cent of mothers saying home schooling had fallen largely to them, impacting their ability to work. All of this has been echoed in the evidence the committee received in our inquiry.

We know women’s lives have been heavily impacted by Covid, but we must make sure their access to life-saving screening is not, and work to ensure that ‘at the moment’ is kept to a bare minimum.


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