THE number of breast cancer cases picked up by routine screening plummeted during the first year of the Covid pandemic, official figures have confirmed.

Public Health Scotland reported detections fell from 1,724 in the year before the outbreak to 1,006 in 2020/21, a drop of just under 42 per cent.

The agency attributed it partly to pausing the screening programme between March and August 2020, when no new invitations for screening were sent out.

In the three years prior to the pandemic, 2017/18 to 2019/20, an average of 259,040 women were invited annually to come forward for breast screening.

The number of invitations issued fell by more than 100,000 to 151,977 in 2020/21.

Of those invited, an average of 187,650 came forward each year in the three years before the pandemic, but this dropped to 114,136 in 2020/21.

Public Health Scotland said: “Over the previous 10 years, 52.7% of breast cancer registrations in women aged 50-69 were detected through the breast screening programme.

"However, with the Covid-19 pandemic causing a pause in the women being invited for screening, this number has dropped to 39%.”

Despite the pandemic, 675,381 women aged 50 to 70 were invited to attend a routine breast screening appointment between 2018/19 and 2020/21.

With 494,653 coming forward on average, this was a take-up rate of 73.2%, above the minimum acceptable standard of 70% attendance.

However, in Scotland’s most deprived communities, only 61.2% of women came forward for routine screening, compared to 80.8% of their counterparts in the most affluent.

In the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, only 68.5% of women received routine screening from 2018/19 to 2020/21, the only place in Scotland below 70% on average, although 73.8% of women did attend in 2020/21.

Tory MSP Sue Webber said the figures were “deeply concerning”.

She said: “While the impact of Covid on breast cancer screenings is obvious to see, this worrying trend cannot be allowed to continue.

“Most shockingly it is women in our most deprived communities who are suffering the most from not taking up appointments. If the SNP Government are serious about tackling health inequalities, then they must up their game on engaging women in these areas.”

Scottish Labour deputy Jackie Baillie said: “These damning figures lay bare the scale of the challenge our NHS is up against.

“Despite the tireless work of incredible NHS staff, the SNP’s lack of leadership is taking its toll across the board.

“We have a ticking timebomb of cancer cases, with far too many cases being identified late and more potentially going undetected altogether.

“Our NHS is on life support – we cannot wait any longer to act.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Catching breast cancer early is absolutely essential to achieving positive outcomes for patients so the fact that more than 40% fewer screenings have taken place should be setting alarm bells ringing.

“All of this means people in need are waiting in limbo, whilst their loved ones watch on anxiously, powerless to do anything.

“The Scottish Government needs to get a grip of cancer diagnosis and treatment as a matter of urgency. That starts with a fresh push to ensure that women in every corner of Scotland are getting screened."

Kate Seymour, head of advocacy for Macmillan Cancer Support in Scotland, said, although the 70% target had been hit, “today’s statistics do still mean that more than a quarter of eligible people were not screened, and that people in more deprived parts of Scotland were far less likely to be screened than others”.

She said: “We know that early diagnosis and timely treatment provide the best possible outcomes for people with cancer, and effective screening is one of the best ways to make sure that happens.

“Now that screening services are back up and running it’s vital that screening capacity is maintained at optimum levels and that those who have received an invitation to be screened take up their appointment, so everyone with breast cancer can be diagnosed and access the life-saving treatment they need.”

Dr Jodie Moffat, head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “The pandemic caused the breast screening programme in Scotland to be paused for a few months so it’s no surprise to see a fall in the number of breast cancer cases being diagnosed via this route in 2020.

“Breast screening is back up and running and we’ll be keeping a keen eye on what happens to the data for more recent time periods.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Uptake for routine breast screening continues to exceed the national target of 70% in women aged 50-70.

“We will continue to tackle inequalities in all cancer screening programmes through a £2 million investment and on-going work to improve our breast screening programme.

“As a result of the pandemic, self-referrals for women over 71 have been paused since march 2020 so that capacity can be prioritised for women between 50 and 70 for whom screening is recommended. We are working towards the re-introduction of the screening programme for self-referrals by September this year.”