Cervical screening targets are still not being met

Women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for regular cervical screening under the NHS Cervical Screening Programme. The intention is to detect abnormalities within the cervix, which could develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.

A damning report by the National Audit Office in 2019 highlighted a number of problems in the cervical screening process in the UK. The report showed that none of the main health NHS screening programmes for cervical cancer in England had met their targets. It found that thousands of women did not receive their invitations for screening tests and more than 150,000 untested cervical screening samples were discovered in laboratories across the country. Half the women tested had experienced delays in obtaining the cervical screening results. The IT systems used by many screening services were found to be old, complex and no longer fit for purpose.

At the beginning of December 2019, a more sensitive cervical screening test was rolled out as part of the NHS Long Term Plan: HPV primary screening. This test checks for a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. If there is a positive HPV test, the sample is examined for abnormal changes of the cervix. Experts say that there is “potential” to eliminate cervical cancer completely due to this change in testing, together with HPV vaccination.

One year on and the screening rate remains significantly lower than the government’s national target of 80%. The government is also falling short of its target for 98% of women to receive their test results within 14 days. According to NHS Digital’s 2019-2020 report on the NHS Cervical Screening Programme for England published in November 2020 and co-authored with Public Health England:

  • 72.2% of eligible women aged 25 to 64 were adequately screened
  • 44% of result letters were received within the 14-day timeframe

Barriers to cervical screening still remain and must be overcome – patient embarrassment and fear are just two examples. What happens this year remains to be seen. It is thought that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to be more evident in the 2020-21 report. However, given that invitations for screening were suspended for a period in 2020 and that many women could be ignoring their invitation in the midst of the pandemic, there will surely be a backlog to contend with. The NHS plan to launch a new, cloud-based IT system for cervical screening in the spring of 2021, which will hopefully improve this important service.

What we know for sure is that cervical screening is hugely important. Please join us in supporting the #SmearForSmear campaign in Cervical Cancer Prevention Week to help raise awareness.

How to help raise awareness?

  • Share a message of support
  • Smear your lipstick
  • Post it on social media with #SmearForSmear
  • Pass the message on and get your loved ones involved