The NAO said the NHS handling of changes to the cervical cancer screening programme had led to a backlog of samples, amid growing shortages of laboratory staff. The problems occured after staff left “in search of greater job security” after being told the number of laboratories would be cut from 48 to nine.
This has led to a “decline in performance against turnaround time targets” and a build-up of samples waiting to be tested, the NAO said.
Its report said: “In October 2018, there was a backlog of 98,000 cervical screening samples waiting to be tested by laboratories across England.
“NHS England told us that it is working to reduce the backlog, which has been reduced from 152,742 in March 2018 by moving the analysis of samples around the country, to reduce the burden on those laboratories under most pressure.”
Labour MP Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, said the failings were “unacceptable” and “worrying”.
Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Over the past year we have had many women contacting us with concerns over delays in their results and it is simply not fair that women should be put under undue stress as a result of failings in the programme management.”
Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said it was “extremely worrying” that NHS performance targets for breast screening continued to be missed, with “completely unacceptable” waits for some patients.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Our screening programmes are widely recognised as among the best in the world, and we are committed to making any improvements needed to keep our offer to patients world-class.
“Prevention and early diagnosis of cancer are key priorities for this Government, and we are already working closely with NHS England and Public Health England to address the issues this useful report highlights. “An independent review announced by NHS England is looking at cancer screening services. We expect this to lead to an overhaul of the system so it meets the high standard NHS patients rightly expect.”