Just 83% of patients requiring urgent treatment for suspected cancers were treated within the two-month target time according to the latest NHS Scotland statistics – the lowest level in two years.
However, once a decision to treat the cancer was made, 97.7% of patients started treatment within the 31-day target, with an average wait of five days.
Cancer waiting time statistics published by Public Health Scotland for the first quarter of this year show increased numbers of patients being referred compared to the end of 2020 but the numbers are still far below pre-pandemic levels.
Of the 3,601 patients urgently referred for treatment with a suspected cancer between January and March, 2,988 (83%) started treatment within 62 days.
The total number of patients was an increase of 2.9% on the previous quarter, but still 6.1% below the quarter ending March 31 2020.
The average waiting time was 43 days, although the maximum recorded wait was 244 days.
Across Scotland, the Scottish Government’s target of 95% of eligible patients waiting for treatment was only met by two health boards: NHS Shetland and NHS Borders.
The 31-day standard, which is a target for 95% of patients to wait no longer than that from the time the decision to treat is made to first cancer treatment, was met in 5,683 out of the 5,816 cases (97.7%).
That is down from 98.6% on the final three months of 2020, but up from 96.2% in the first quarter of that year.
There were 5,816 eligible referrals within the 31-day standard, an increase of 2.1% from the previous quarter but a decrease of 10% for quarter ending 31 March 2020.
On average, treatment began after just five days, although the maximum wait was 131.
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “It is reassuring that, during a further national Covid-19 lockdown in the first quarter of 2021, once a decision to treat was made cancer patients in Scotland waited on average five days for treatment.
“The 31-day standard has been consistently met throughout the pandemic.
“While the overall aim is to improve cancer-waiting-times performance, our priority, as the NHS continues to remobilise, remains ensuring that vital services are delivered safely to patients based on their clinical priority.
“This week we have announced a further £10 million will be provided to Health Boards across Scotland to improve cancer waiting times – through investment which will be used to enhance staffing, for diagnostic tests, and to support evening and weekend working so more patients can be seen.”
According to the Public Health Scotland report some Boards have highlighted that staffing and capacity issues have impacted on performance in the latest quarter, with issues arising around self-isolation, social distancing and cleaning time between patients.
The increase in eligible referrals is largely due to the gradual reopening of three screening programmes – breast and cervical, which resumed from July 13 and bowel screening which resumed on October 12.
Andy Glyde, senior external affairs manager for Cancer Research UK in Scotland, said the statistics show cancer services in Scotland “continue to struggle and a huge effort is still needed to clear a backlog of patients”.
He added: “Diagnosing cancer early and offering patients swift access to the most effective treatment can also be lifesaving.
“The Scottish Government has committed to improving waiting times and their announcement of new funding to tackle the backlog is welcome.
“We now need to see detailed plans of how this funding will be used to address the long-standing staff shortages which existed within cancer services before the pandemic struck.”