Britain has a relatively poor record on cancer survival compared to other western nations, according to international studies such as the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership, and this has been linked to slow diagnoses by British GPs.

In 2015, the Independent Cancer Taskforce, set up by David Cameron, reported that “healthcare systems with a ‘gatekeeping’ role” for GPs in cancer diagnostics “have significantly lower one-year cancer survival than systems without such gatekeeper functions”.

The NHS has a plan to introduce Rapid Diagnostics Centres to help GPs speed up cancer diagnoses by 2028, but the coronavirus pandemic has placed an extraordinary new burden on the system.

Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “The NHS is working hard to protect cancer services, but the impact of Covid-19 on cancer patients has been devastating.

“Self-referral could be one way to try to get more patients into the health system but more research is needed to understand who could benefit and how it would actually work. And there is already a substantial backlog of patients waiting for diagnostics tests and treatment which means that people are likely to face increased waiting times anyway, whether or not they visited their GP.

“While there are challenges in the system, it is still very important that anyone who has noticed an unusual change in their body gets in touch with their GP. And if it’s tricky getting an appointment, do keep trying.”

A Government spokesman said: “Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a top priority throughout the pandemic, with 1.7 million urgent referrals and over 228,000 people starting treatment between March and December last year.

“We are clear that if people have symptoms they should come forward to their GP and, as part of our additional investment in the NHS, an extra £1 billion will be used to boost diagnosis and treatment in the year ahead.”

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