Uptake of NHS breast cancer screening in England was below target for the fourth year in a row, new figures have revealed.
There are calls for the Government to invest more in the programme or risk women being “denied the best chance of a timely breast cancer diagnosis”.
The NHS Breast Screening Programme is open to women between the ages of 50 and 70.
It involves a test known as a mammography – or an x-ray of the breasts – to detect signs of cancer that may be too small to see or feel.
Data published by NHS England showed 2.98 million women were invited for screening in 2023, with 1.93 million attending within six months.
The uptake for the year was 64.6%, below the 70% target.
While the percentage is higher than the 62.3% reported in 2022, it is the fourth consecutive year it has been below target.
The proportion was last above 70% in 2019 (71.1%), but fell to 69.1% in 2020 and 61.8% in 2021.
The charity Breast Cancer Now estimates that 1,311 more cases of the disease could have been detected in 2023 if the target was met.
Chief executive Baroness Delyth Morgan warned that women could be missing out on timely diagnosis.
“Our incredible NHS staff continue to go above and beyond to provide the best standard of care, but women will continue to be denied the best chance of a timely breast cancer diagnosis until the Government shows it’s serious about breast screening,” she said.
“We desperately need more eligible women to be screened for breast cancer, and for screening units to be supported to reach more women and help save more lives from the disease.”
Baroness Morgan added that the Government “recognises the breast screening programme is crucial to achieving its aims to increase early diagnosis and reduce cancer inequalities” but the latest “disappointing figures show that, yet again, it’s failing to take the decisive action needed to boost screening attendance”.
Dr Louise Wilkinson, a consultant radiologist and national specialist adviser for breast screening at NHS England, said: “Around one in seven women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, and detecting it at an early stage helps give people the best chance of successful treatment.
“Today’s figures show that 18,942 women were diagnosed and able to seek treatment because they attended breast screening check-ups last year. We know that lives are saved when cancers are caught early.
“I know life gets busy, but I would urge anyone who has received a breast screening invitation – even if you received the invite weeks or months ago – to put your health at the top of your to-do list and book an appointment at your local screening service or mobile unit. It could save your life.”
Breast Cancer Now is “urgently” calling on the Government and NHS England to invest in breast cancer screening as part of its #NoTimeToWaste campaign.
The charity is urging for a national awareness campaign to promote screening in England, focusing on areas where uptake is at its lowest.
In 2023, London has the lowest uptake of invitations at 55.4%, up from 50.4% in 2022.
The capital was followed by the Midlands at 64.3% and the North East and Yorkshire at 65.9%.
Baroness Morgan said raising awareness in these areas would be “a crucial first step in transforming the programme and guaranteeing women’s access to breast screening both now and for the future”.
The highest regional uptake during the year was in the South East at 68.0%.
Health minister Maria Caulfield said: “It is vital that women come forward for breast screening when invited, as early cancer diagnosis can make all the difference.
“We’re making it as easy as possible to attend appointments and screening rates are rising, but there are still too many women missing out so I urge everyone receiving that text invite or that letter to book a check-up – it could be lifesaving.”
However, shadow women and equalities secretary Anneliese Dodds said women’s health has been “shamefully deprioritised” under the Conservative Party.
She added: “This failure to ensure women are screened for breast cancer is downright dangerous.
“How many cases of cancer could have been caught earlier if more people were screened? How many women wouldn’t have to go through the fear and anxiety of catching breast cancer too late? How many people have lost loved ones due to this abject failure?
“Labour will provide the staff, technology and reform the health service needs to build an NHS fit for the future and to end the scandalous deprioritisation of women’s health.”