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The cancer screening meltdown: Lives put at risk by backlog of 150,000 samples

MORE than 150,000 cervical screening samples were left waiting to be tested after a backlog built up in laboratories, a watchdog report has revealed.

Only one in three women undergoing smear tests was receiving results within the official target of a fortnight amid the chaos last March, according to the National Audit Office.

The backlog had fallen to 98,000 by October but nearly half of women were still waiting more than two weeks.

Charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said the delays were continuing, with results not sent for four months in some cases. It criticised the Department of Health and outsourcing firm Capita.

There are also concerns that many women are not receiving their results at all, or even their invitations for the potentially lifesaving tests, with breast and bowel cancer screening also affected. The NAO’s report said: ‘All the screening programmes rely on a complex and ageing IT system to identify who to invite for screening.’

Fewer than 60 per cent of women go for cervical screening in some areas but — despite the worryingly low take-up — the target of returning 98 per cent of test results in two weeks was last met in 2015. A scheme due to be fully in place by December will see samples tested first for human papillomavirus — the cause of most cervical cancers — with extra checks only done if it is found.

The change is expected to allow the number of labs to fall from 48 to nine — and the NAO said this was contributing to the backlog as staff fearful of lay-offs were moving on. The Department of Health said it was already working with the NHS to address issues pointed out in the ‘useful report’. Jo’s Cervical Cancer said the NAO had flagged up ‘serious concerns we have held for a long time’.

Capita, also criticised over its failure to recruit enough soldiers after winning a £495million MoD hiring contract, said it had made improvements and apologised to women affected by delays.