NHS screening programmes during COVID-19

During the coronavirus surge, while NHS England and Improvement (NHSEI) did not issue any national directive to change screening services, many local screening providers had to take the decision to reschedule appointments and invitations to a later date, to allow staff to be redeployed to respond to the pandemic and to protect patients and staff from the virus.

NHSEI are now working with screening providers to ensure that people that are at higher risk or already have a positive test result and need follow up tests are urgently seen, alongside plans to reschedule invitations and appointments for routine primary screening.

Screening is a way of identifying apparently healthy people who may have an increased risk of a particular condition.  While all programmes involve a routine primary test to check for any risk signs, the majority of people will need no further tests. Some people may need follow up tests and possibly treatment and so different people will be at different stages of what is called the screening ‘pathway’ and this is different for each programme.

If you are invited for an appointment, NHSEI encourages you to attend. The NHS has safety measures in place to minimise the risk of people getting coronavirus. As always, anyone who is worried or has symptoms is encouraged to contact their GP practice for advice.

The following information provides an update about breast, cervical and bowel screening;

NHS breast screening programme during COVID-19

During the coronavirus pandemic, local breast screening services took the decision to reschedule appointments and invitations for tests to a later date to protect patients from the virus and redeploy staff to support coronavirus-related work.

  • Breast screening services are urgently working to prioritise seeing:
    • women clinically diagnosed as being at very high risk of breast cancer
    • women who need more tests following their last screening
    • women who have been invited for screening but not yet seen
    • women aged from 50 to their 71st birthday due their routine screening.
  • Plans are also in place to send invites out for routine screening where they were previously delayed.  
  • To focus on high risk patients or those that need follow up tests and treatment, self-referrals from women aged 71 or over are currently paused and this will be kept under close review.
  • As always, anyone who thinks they may have symptoms of breast cancer symptoms should contact their GP practice as soon as possible.

NHS Cervical screening during COVID-19

Routine cervical screening is offered to all women and people with a cervix aged 24.5 to 64. At the height of coronavirus, many services across the country took the decision to reschedule cervical screening appointments to a later date, to respond to the pandemic and protect patients from the virus.

  • People that weren’t able to get an appointment for their cervical screen (smear test) during coronavirus, will now be contacted by their GP practice.
  • The timings for when invitations for cervical screening (smear tests) are issued have now started to return to normal and sample taking providers (e.g. GP practices and sexual health clinics) have been asked to ensure that appointments are offered to all women and people with a cervix who are eligible and due to be screened
  • For people that need follow up tests (colposcopy), colposcopy activity is increasing and services are prioritising appointments for people at higher risk. 
  • As always, anyone who has symptoms, should contact their GP practice.

NHS bowel cancer screening programme during COVID-19

In England there are currently two parts to the bowel cancer screening programme:

  • Home testing kit: People aged 60 to 74 are automatically invited to be sent a home testing FIT (Faecal Immunochemical Test) kit every 2 years. The kit is tested for small amounts of blood in person’s poo (that would not be noticeable by eye). This is done because bowel cancers and polyps bleed on and off. Finding blood doesn’t mean cancer has been detected. It means further tests such as a colonoscopy are advised. People over the age of 74 can request the home testing kit every 2 years via a self-referral process.
  • Bowel scope screening: People aged 55 are invited for a once-only bowel scope screen, if the test is available in their area. The bowel scope screening test uses a thin flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end to look inside the lower part of the large bowel for any polyps or cancers.

Bowel scope screening is currently suspended as the NHS prioritises screening patients who need further tests following their bowel cancer screening result. Plans are in place to look at alternative ways of screening people who have already accepted an invitation to bowel scope screening.

  • During the coronavirus outbreak, bowel cancer screening providers took the decision locally to reschedule appointments for diagnostic tests to a later date to redeploy staff to support coronavirus-related work and protect patients from the virus.
  • Bowel screening services are urgently prioritising people that need follow up tests (colonoscopy) following their bowel screening result including the offer of telephone assessment appointments with a specialist screening practitioner (SSP) where appropriate.
  • Plans are in place to send out invites and FIT kits to people who have had their invitation delayed due to coronavirus as soon as possible.
  • The screening programme is still able to process completed test kits during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Anyone who has symptoms of bowel cancer should contact their GP practice.
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