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New research has found that delayed and cancelled cervical screening appointments have left many women feeling worried (39%). Yet, while 40% would feel relieved to be able to go, as screening programmes across the UK are looking to recover, around one in eight women (12%) say they feel less likely to attend than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar numbers (13%) think it is best to put off going for cervical screening at the moment.
With low cervical screening attendance already a concern before COVID-19, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is using Cervical Screening Awareness Week to address new challenges to attendance as a result of the virus.
It is estimated over two million people across the UK have been unable to access screening or cancer treatment over the past few months as the NHS has responded to COVID-19. Cervical screening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has largely paused, while in England cervical screening services have been affected in some areas.
The charity’s Helpline has seen a growing level of anxiety and confusion around cervical screening since the pandemic began.
Fears around safety (11%), not wanting to put ‘additional strain’ on the NHS (15%), shielding or protecting others (13%), and uncertainty over changes to cervical screening are just some of the new concerns and uncertainties. A quarter of women are worried about their risk of coronavirus if they go.
Robert Music, Chief Executive, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust: “Cervical screening isn’t always the easiest test and we must try to prevent coronavirus making it even harder. We want every woman to have the information and support they need to feel able to make decisions about their health. This includes understanding the measures GP practices and sexual health services are putting in to keep patients safe. For those working in primary care, being mindful of new concerns as a result of coronavirus is important to ensure the right support can be given to women due cervical screening.”
Five million women are invited for cervical screening each year in the UK with around 3.5 million taking up their invite. 60% of those surveyed say coronavirus has not changed how they feel about cervical screening however the charity has found a clear need for information with a third (36%) of women saying they are unsure of what to expect if they go to a GP practice for a cervical screening now.
Robert continues: “While it can be difficult if you are unable to get an appointment at the moment, providers of cervical screening services and the government are weighing up the risk of a delayed appointment against the risk of coronavirus. The aim is to keep you, and health workers, as protected as possible.”
The charity is launching new FAQs to address common questions such as “What do you do if your test has been cancelled? Is a delay dangerous? Is it safe to attend? Is the test the same still? What happens when you go to a GP now?” It aims to reassure women that, while visiting the GP might look a bit different, cervical screening itself remains the same.It is also calling for innovation such as self-sampling to be further explored to help restore cervical screening across the UK and reduce the pressure on primary care.
Joanne had a cervical screening appointment during lockdown: “Both myself and the nurse doing my smear test were wearing protective items and there was only myself in the building. I was nervous because of COVID but also didn’t want to risk my health by not attending my regular smear testing. I did ask the GP if it was better to wait till lockdown eases and they replied that I would be fine and they are taking every precaution to keep staff and patients safe. I was in and out within 10 minutes and got my peace of mind as my results were all ok.”
One in seven women feel safe going for screening at the moment, yet the same number feel anxious at the prospect of having another health issue to think about.
Dr Nikki Kanani, GP and director of primary care for the NHS in England said: “Where local providers decided to reschedule cervical screening appointments during the pandemic, plans are now in place to start offering appointments as soon as possible and services will have measures in place to protect people from coronavirus.
“While cervical cancer takes a long time to develop, we would strongly encourage any patients who are worried to seek help from their GP if they have symptoms, and if you are invited to attend a screening appointment, please do.”
The Scottish Government’s Minister for Public Health, Joe FitzPatrick, said: “The Scottish Government introduced a necessary and structured pause to the cervical screening programme in March due to the coronavirus outbreak. I am pleased that we are preparing for the phased resumption of cervical screening across the country as part of the remobilisation of the NHS in Scotland. This will be welcome news to many and I want to reassure patients that necessary steps will be introduced to enable women to access this important service.”
A Public Health Wales official said: “Public Health Wales is working actively on assessing and planning a safe re-instatement of the cervical screening programme. Cervical Screening Wales is planning to start sending invitations and reminders from the end of June in a clinical priority manner. In the first month we will be sending invitations to individuals overdue a non-routine repeat screening. We will then continue, provided all key conditions remain safe for both participants and staff, on a monthly basis to send out invitations to individuals overdue a routine screening, followed by reminders for those who have missed appointments, and so on.“
In Northern Ireland: “The cervical screening programme in Northern Ireland is currently paused in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Plans are being developed to restore the programme as soon as it is possible and safe to do so.”
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Notes to editors