PROBLEMS with booking cervical smear tests is putting the lives of women in Swindon at risk.

Patients have told the Adver they have been unable to secure appointments at their respective surgeries since the coronavirus pandemic hit – despite being due for the crucial test which can detect cancer early.

Louise Joachim, a florist from Osborne Street, said she has tried to phone her GP surgery almost daily to book a test since receiving a reminder letter in July. But in almost four months since she has still not been able to get through to speak to a receptionist to book an appointment.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Louise who is on the register at Abbey Meads Medical Group.

“I could literally be living with this cancer right now and not know it, and be told in six months' time that if I’d had this test earlier we could have saved your life.

“It’s been months now. It’s just crazy.”

The mum of one hasn’t had a test in two-and-a-half years and says every time she calls her surgery, she just sits in the phone queue.

“I’ve pretty much been calling since the end of July and to no avail. I got close towards the end of October when I was 25th in the queue but most of the time I’m 65th, 68th, or I was once 43rd in the queue.

“I run my own business so I can’t keep phoning all day every day. I try and call at the times they tell us to but it’s very difficult,” said Louise.

She added: “It’s not just that you might have to wait a long time for appointments; it’s that you actually cannot speak to anybody.”

Emma Clay, 41, hasn’t had a test in seven years.

The mum of one from Stratton, whose is registered with Merchiston Surgery said last November she booked a test for the next available appointment at the end of March 2020. The first lockdown meant this was cancelled and she has not been able to rearrange one since.

“Last year I suddenly realised I hadn’t had a letter about my test and it had been five years. As far as I was aware they should be every four years,” said Emma, who works in schools.

At first Emma says she was told as she was over 35 she only has to have a test every six years and so couldn’t book one – which surprised her. When the pandemic started she received a text message saying all routine appointments were cancelled and the surgery would be in touch.

“Well months and months went by and they didn’t get back in touch,” said Emma. “With lockdown easing in July, I tried to make an appointment again. I was then told they were not making any routine appointments.”

Emma has had three abnormal results from her last four tests. Following two of the three abnormal results, she had treatment to stop cancer cells developing.

“It is a massive worry for me,” Emma said. “It’s been a whole year since I first tried to book a test and I still haven’t been seen. I don’t really see this as a routine appointment.”

Emma said: “I was quite surprised that even though you could go and get your hair done after July, you couldn’t get a smear test.”

Both women say they are now exploring getting the test done privately.

“The outbreak has been going on since March," added Louise. "We’re not right at the beginning of it now. It feels bewildering that a lot of lifesaving appointments are just not available.”

Louise added the inability to access tests like this could lead to bigger problems for the NHS in the future.

She said: “All other health problems don’t go away just because of the pandemic.

"They’re focusing primarily just on Covid-19 and it feels like for everything else, you’ve just been told you don’t matter."

Debra Collins, 49, is registered with Park Lane Surgery.

“I was due for a cervical smear test at the start of October and still haven’t received my letter. I cant get through to the surgery," she said. "I’ve tried for almost two weeks now.

“This is a massive problem. It’s a lifesaving provision, and women need to be able to access it.

“Everyone has tried to do their best to protect the NHS when the pandemic started, but there are now issues where people can’t get any treatment. Something’s got to change.

“By the time people do get the treatment they need, it will be too late. There’s going to be serious fallout from this.

She added: “What are these surgeries doing if they’re not seeing anyone? The national message is that the NHS is open for business but it’s not. We’ve got a big problem with access to our healthcare at the moment.”

NHS and CCG apologise

An NHS England South West spokesperson said: “Firstly we would like to apologise to anyone who has not received a letter inviting them to their cervical screening. Letters are sent from a national centre which accesses personal details from patient records. It is of course important these are kept up to date to ensure those people receive their invites promptly and are able to book without delay.

“Of course this year due to the current pandemic we have seen un-precedented demand on the NHS and as such some services were delayed. During this time screening invites were prioritised for those needing frequent screening based on their risk level. Whilst invitation and reminder letters did not stop from early April to early June, there was a delay in communication to women who were not at high risk.

“This service has returned to normal and we would urge anyone invited for a test to book this without delay and for those who are unsure or who are experiencing unusual symptoms to call their GP.”

A CCG spokesperson said: “We would like to apologise to anyone who has had difficulty booking an appointment for screening, we have alerted those practices and would encourage everyone to persevere during these busy months.

“Primary care services across Bath and North East Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire have remained open throughout the entire coronavirus pandemic, with GPs and their teams quickly adapting to new ways of working in order to continue providing care in the safest way possible.

“While much of this new way of working has involved moving services to a digital platform, face-to-face consultations have remained on the table for those most in need, and in recent weeks we have started to see the number of in-person appointments being carried out overtake those happening by phone or video call.”

A spokesperson from Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Abbey Meads surgery said: “We are sorry to hear about the patient’s experience and have been in touch with her to offer an appointment at the earliest opportunity. We recognise that it can be distressing for patients who may be waiting a long time on the phone for an appointment, but please be assured that we are doing all that we can to continue providing care to local people in our GP surgeries during this really difficult time.

“We have appointed additional senior clinicians so we can offer patients more appointments and we are currently undertaking an audit to identify patients needing appointments for public health screening and immunisation programmes. This includes women who are overdue for their smear tests, and with all the work we currently have in place, we hope that this will continually improve access for patients.

“Additionally, we are working closely with our telecommunications provider to create different options on our telephone system, which will redirect patients to the right support, first time and we are also increasing the number of call handlers to reduce wait times. We continue to ask people to bear with us at this time.”

Charity concerns

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust said: “Cervical screening isn’t always the easiest test and we must try to prevent the coronavirus making it even harder.

“We want every woman to have the information and support they need to feel able to make decisions about their health.

“While it can be difficult if you are unable to get an appointment at the moment, providers of cervical screening services and the government are weighing up the risk of a delayed appointment against the risk of coronavirus. The aim is to keep you, and health workers, as protected as possible.”

What does the data say?

NHS Digital data showed 18,031 women in Swindon who were eligible for a test by the end of 2019 missed their last smear screening.

According to the NHS website women aged 25 to 49 should be invited for screening every three years, while those aged 50 to 64 receive invitations every five years.

The test looks for changes in the cells of the cervix which could develop into cancer.

A small sample of cells is taken from the cervix using a soft brush.