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Introduction: The COVID-19 pandemic had collateral effects on many health systems. Cancer screening and diagnostic tests were postponed, resulting in delays in diagnosis and treatment. This study assessed the impact of the pandemic on screening, diagnostics and incidence of breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer; and whether rates returned to pre-pandemic levels by December, 2021. Methods: This is a cohort study of electronic health records from the United Kingdom (UK) primary care Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) GOLD database. The study included individuals registered with CPRD GOLD between January, 2017 and December, 2021, with at least 365 days of clinical history. The study focused on screening, diagnostic tests, referrals and diagnoses of first-ever breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer. Incidence rates (IR) were stratified by age, sex, and region, and incidence rate ratios (IRR) were calculated to compare rates during and after lockdown with rates before lockdown. Forecasted rates were estimated using negative binomial regression models. Results: Among 5,191,650 eligible participants, the first lockdown resulted in reduced screening and diagnostic tests for all cancers, which remained dramatically reduced across the whole observation period for almost all tests investigated. There were significant IRR reductions in breast (0.69 [95% CI: 0.63-0.74]), colorectal (0.74 [95% CI: 0.67-0.81]), and prostate (0.71 [95% CI: 0.66-0.78]) cancer diagnoses. IRR reductions for lung cancer were non-significant (0.92 [95% CI: 0.84-1.01]). Extrapolating to the entire UK population, an estimated 18,000 breast, 13,000 colorectal, 10,000 lung, and 21,000 prostate cancer diagnoses were missed from March, 2020 to December, 2021. Discussion: The UK COVID-19 lockdown had a substantial impact on cancer screening, diagnostic tests, referrals, and diagnoses. Incidence rates remained significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels for breast and prostate cancers and associated tests by December, 2021. Delays in diagnosis are likely to have adverse consequences on cancer stage, treatment initiation, mortality rates, and years of life lost. Urgent strategies are needed to identify undiagnosed cases and address the long-term implications of delayed diagnoses.

Original publication




Journal article


Frontiers in oncology


Frontiers Media

Publication Date





cancer screening, pandemic, colorectal cancer, COVID-19, lung cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer