Thousands of cancers may have been missed due to Covid-19, TDs told

Oireachtas health committee hears services suffered ‘hammer blow after hammer blow’

Up to 2,000 invasive cancers may have been missed last year due to the impact of Covid-19, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Averil Power, chief executive of the Irish Cancer Society, told the health committee that research showed one in four people were not going to GPs with health concerns in 2020, which has improved to one in six this year.

This hesitancy, she said, had led to people presenting with symptoms and certain types of cancer later.

She told the committee that figures imply diagnoses last year were at least 10 per cent lower, meaning potentially 2,000 invasive cancers went undiagnosed. She said that there has been “hammer blow after hammer blow” to cancer services in the last 15 months, first from Covid, and then the impact of the HSE cyber attack.

She said the health system is under “intolerable strain” with healthcare professionals “burned out” and cancer patients “at breaking point”.

She said preparations must be made now for a surge of more advanced cases of cancer in the coming years, with health and social care systems “not ready for the cancer epidemic” coming down the tracks.

Dr Gabrielle Colleran, vice chair of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, said the cyberattack has had a "devastating effect", with her experience mirrored by her IHCA colleague, Prof Robert Landers.

He said the attack had brought his lab to a “standstill”, and it had gone from processing 150 tissue samples a day to between three and five a day, with many IT systems designed to safeguard the process sidelined.

‘Red hot’

This meant the risk of making a mistake when processing a sample is “red hot”, he said.

"We don't have the safety systems in place to deliver a safe diagnosis at the moment," he told Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane.

Earlier, Prof Landers told Fine Gael TD Colm Burke that the attack had set cancer services back "months, not weeks".

He said there was no quick fix, but that a plan must be put in place, and that there was no urgency coming from the HSE or the Department.

“There seems to be no focus on this in terms of how wer’e going to get out of this at the Department level,” he said, adding that the HSE is a “massive bureaucracy that hinders effective, fast, decision making”.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall was told that while progress had been made in recent national cancer strategies, data gaps were making it difficult to assess the progress being made under the current plan.

Ms Power told the Dublin North West TD that ""if we're not actually collecting the data, it's really difficult to hold the Government to account".

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times