As part of the ongoing response to COVID-19, Public Health Scotland provides an overview of changes in health and use of healthcare services during the pandemic. This week, data on the numbers of people who have had a diagnosis of cancer confirmed using a sample of tissue (a pathologically confirmed cancer) between 1 January and 21 June 2020, compared with how many there were in the same period in 2019 are included in our analysis for the first time.  This information is provided to help inform the ongoing response to COVID-19 and is a subset of the fuller information on cancer incidence in 2020, which is due to be published by the Scottish Cancer Registry in 2022.

The data show that between January and March 2020, the number of people who had a pathological diagnosis of cancer was similar to the number in the same period in 2019.  By the week ending 21 June 2020, around 4,000 fewer people in Scotland had a pathologically confirmed cancer diagnosis than would have been expected. Between March and June 2020, numbers fell by about 40% of those in 2019. In total, therefore, between January and the end of June 2020, the overall number of patients diagnosed was down by 19% on 2019 figures in the same period. 

The fall in numbers is unlikely to be due to a reduced occurrence of cancer, and is likely to reflect a combination of: patients with possible cancer symptoms not seeking out help from their GP (as they may be worried about catching COVID-19); changes to the national screening programmes in the first few months of the pandemic; or reductions in the availability of diagnostic services and treatment during this period.

It is clear that COVID-19 has caused substantial direct and indirect harm to the health of the people of Scotland.  As we continue to provide guidance on and evidence for actions to stop the spread of the virus we will also monitor the wider impact it has in our communities. PHS will do this so that, together with partners in Government, local Government and in Health Boards across Scotland, we can work to protect the health of all of Scotland’s people.

Professor David Morrison, Director of the Scottish Cancer Registry at Public Health Scotland said:

"Understanding the impact of the pandemic on health and healthcare services is a crucial part of our efforts to respond to and recover from it. As part of the Scottish Cancer Registry’s response we wanted to help understand how cancer diagnoses and cancer services have been affected. The reduction in cancer diagnoses this year gives us a sense of the scale of the impact of COVID-19 on all stages of the journey from first seeking help to recovering from treatment.   

"If you’re worried you might have cancer – see your GP and get checked out. It’s probably not cancer - but if it is, the sooner you’re diagnosed, the better your chances of successful treatment."

To see the further information on the wider impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s health, and their use of healthcare services, including the data on cancer outlined above, please visit our COVID-19 wider impacts on the health care system web pages.

For information on screening, please visit NHS Inform.

Last updated: 06 October 2022