ROUTINE breast cancer screening is to restart next month after being put on hold by coronavirus.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said the service should start on August 3, but was unable to say how long it would take to return to pre-outbreak levels.

Around 180,000 women in Scotland aged 50 to 70 have a screening appointment each year, suggesting a backlog of around 60,000 cases created by the four-month suspension. 

At the Scottish Government’s daily briefing, Nicola Sturgeon also announced there had been no confirmed Covid deaths for five days running.

But she cautioned that this included the weekend, when death recording often slowed down.

The First Minister also said there had been 19 cases identified overnight, 12 in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Area, of which seven were asymptomatic cases in a single care home.

Ms Sturgeon said of the cluster: "That is being looked at in much greater detail and all necessary follow-up tests, checks and precautions are being undertaken."

Ms Freeman said anyone who had been invited to a breast screening before the service was paused on March 30 would get a letter in the coming weeks.

She said there would be no change to the test itself, but there would be extra safety measures such as staggered appointments, physical distancing and staff in PPE.

“It will take a bit of time to get the service up and running again, but it is an important further step in restarting our important NHS activities,” she said. 

She went on: “Pausing the adult national screening programmes was one of a series of difficult decisions we have had to make in responding to the impact of Covid-19. 

“I am delighted breast cancer screening is resuming and I would urge everyone to attend their appointment, as screening can find early signs of cancer.

“The continued efforts we are making to limit the spread of the virus have allowed us to restart the national breast screening programme in line with expert clinical advice and the recommendations of the Scottish Screening Committee, as part of the planned safe and incremental remobilisation of NHS Scotland.

“The safety of patients and staff will continue to be our priority as all of the national screening programmes restart and expand. I want to reassure you that we are taking these precautions so that we can safely offer the right care, at the right time, in the right place.”

But asked how long it would take to clear the backlog and return the servive to pre-Covid levels, Ms Freeman admitted she didn't know.

She said: "This is a national screening programme, but each of our NHS boards are working in their way to their own mobilisation plan.

“So we will look across all of those to make sure that we have equity for women across the country.

“But at this point it isn’t clear exactly how long it would take before the group who were paused have been caught up with, bearing in mind we’re also restarting in parallel with that the normal appointment lines of screening.

“All of that will take a little bit longer because we need to have fewer people in waiting rooms, PPE is worn, and we need to ensure we maintain physical distancing.

“In common with all the other restart of NHS services.. some of this takes longer in order to ensure it is safe for both the patients and staff.”

Marion O’Neill, of Cancer Research UK, added: “It is great news that breast cancer screening services in Scotland are returning.

Although breast cancer screening has both benefits and harms, we know cancer screening programmes saves lives.

“There may be some changes to what happens at your appointment because of Covid-19 and your results may be delayed, so it’s more important than ever that you read the information provided. Ask at your appointment how long it might take and who to contact if you haven’t heard in that time.

“It is important to remember that screening is for healthy people with no symptoms. If you notice any unusual changes to your body that don’t go away, talk to your doctor.”

Janice Preston, Head of Services, Scotland at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It has been a very anxious time for women who have had their appointments cancelled or paused during these exceptional circumstances for health and care services.

“It is vital that the new appointment letters include details of the safety measures being put in place, to reassure people they are being cared for in a safe environment and ensuring that they don’t further delay their attendance for screening.

“In the meantime, if anyone is worried about a possible sign or symptom of cancer, they should contact their GP.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The resumption of breast cancer screening is extremely good news.  It is incredibly important that we start up all screening as swiftly and safely as possible.

"Those who receive a distressing cancer diagnosis need to get treated quickly and receive the full package of support.

“The legacy of this pandemic means the NHS is going to be playing catch up on screenings and important appointments for months or years. The Scottish Government must ensure the resources necessary to clear the backlog are available.”