Thousands of cancer patients will be operated on at new centres designed to be kept clear of coronavirus.
The regional “virus-free” centres have been set up in 21 areas of England to carry out urgent surgery during the pandemic.
Trusts have been told all essential cancer treatments must continue despite the NHS focus on coronavirus.
But it is estimated cancer referrals have dropped by about 70%.
A survey by NHS England of 1,000 people found a third were worried about seeking help from their GP.
Top reasons included fear of catching coronavirus, giving it to family members, and being a burden on the health service.
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Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, West Sussex, is the first such designated cancer hub to be established in the South East outside London.
It is treating patients across Sussex, Surrey and Kent who have been diagnosed with head and neck, breast and skin cancers.
Initial conversations and diagnoses are made remotely between surgeon and patient via a video consultation to limit face-to-face contact.
Anyone visiting the hospital goes through a screening process which includes temperature checks before being allowed on site.
‘It meant everything’
Rod Plethero, 71, lives 40 miles away from Queen Victoria Hospital. He was referred there last week for an operation after being diagnosed with cancer of the jaw.
Part of Rod’s jaw was removed and replaced with bone from his fibula.
He said: “I took the chance to come here straightaway because it’s a Covid-free area. Cancer is not a disease that waits for you and having the surgery meant everything.”
Prior to admission, patients are given a swab test for Covid-19 and are asked to remain in isolation for seven days. If they need complex surgery they may also be given a CT scan.
If a patient is diagnosed with coronavirus they will be given a date for surgery after their recovery.
QVH associate medical director Dr Ian Francis said: “An unintended consequence of the pandemic is that cancer patients aren’t being treated in their favour because of the lack of capacity within the NHS.
“Cancer hubs like this are imperative. Before we had the pandemic, cancer was a significant issue.
“If you put the pandemic on top of that, it’s even more critical than ever to ensure their outcomes are as good as you could expect any other time.”
Consequence of delays
Prof Peter Johnson, NHS England’s clinical director for cancer, said waiting to get help could have “serious consequences” for patients – and ultimately put a greater burden on the NHS.
He said: “Online consultations mean people do not necessarily need to go to GP surgeries for check-ups while Covid-free cancer hubs have been set up to provide surgery.”
There are calls for diagnostic services to be up and running more widely too to investigate whether patients do in fact have cancer and need treatment.
Prof Richard Neal, a GP in Leeds, said: “Many diagnostic pathways are not open because they’re unsafe as they are aerosol generating so GPs can’t get our patients to have those procedures done for good reasons.
“It will take quite a little while to get public confidence back into knowing they can come to GPs and to take those symptoms further if they are concerned about them.”