The number of urgent referrals for patients with possible cancer symptoms are still a third lower than normal as people continue to avoid going to their GPs.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman confirmed that as of June 20, the number of 'urgent referrals with a suspicion of cancer' were running around 70% of what would normally be expected.

This has increased since April, however, when referrals plunged to 72% below average.

Scotland's interim chief medical officer, Dr Gregor Smith, said he was "uneasy" about the ongoing drop in referrals, which he said colleagues in general practice had also reported.

He said: "It's an improving picture. I'm encouraged by the fact that the number of referrals have increased, but they're still not back to normal so my message to the Scottish public is very clear: if you've got symptoms that you've been holding onto and scared to speak about, speak to your clinician."

READ MORE: Why GPs in Scotland's most deprived communities fear a 'tsunami' of trouble ahead

In particular, he said people should be vigilant for "new chronic coughs that aren't explained by any type of infection" or coughing up blood.

Although urgent cancer treatment continued during the lockdown, in some cases surgery or chemotherapy was delayed due to the risk of serious or fatal complications if patients contracted Covid.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: "There is a lot of work underway to increase cancer treatment now that it is safer to do so, although there are obviously extra protective measures that need to be introduced too and that inevitably slows down some of the volume of patients that can be treated because of the necessity of physical distancing and so on."

Routine cervical screening - paused in March - has now restarted, and breast and bowel cancer screening are due to resume.

It comes ahead of a BBC Panorama report due to be broadcast tonight which reports on modelling using data from NHS England, where referrals fell 60% in April.

Using information collected by eight hospital trusts, scientists have predicted that delays in diagnosis and treatment caused by the pandemic could result in anything from 7000 to 35,000 extra cancer deaths in the UK within a year, depending on how quickly services are reinstated.

READ MORE: Scotland's cancer waiting times missed for seven years 

Last week figures showed that NHS Scotland had missed the 62-day cancer waiting time for seven full years.

The target states that 95% of patients urgently referred with a suspicion of cancer - and subsequently diagnosed with the disease - should start treatment within 62 days of that initial referral.

NHS Scotland averaged less than 85%, with only two health boards - NHS Lanarkshire and NHS Borders - achieving the benchmark.

Most of the delays are caused by bottlenecks in the diagnostic stage, when patients are sent for MRIs or colonoscopies.

Cancer charities and campaigners fear waiting times for these tests will increase further as the health service tries to catch up with routine cancer screening and patients who have so far delayed going to their GPs.