Scottish Government pauses health screening programmes

Scottish Government pauses health screening programmes
30 March 2020
The Scottish Government is temporarily pausing some health screening programmes

Due to the rapidly changing situation with Coronavirus (COVID-19) the Scottish Government is to temporarily pause a number of screening programmes.

In practice this means no additional patients will be invited for screening until further notice. Results for those who have recently been screened or who have completed and returned home test kits will continue to be processed.

The move means healthcare staff can be re-allocated to support other essential services, including COVID-19 laboratory testing and covering for colleagues who are unwell or self-isolating.

Because members of the public are already choosing not to attend appointments, a structured pause also helps ensure people will not miss their screening altogether.

The paused programmes are:

•           Breast Screening (mammograms)

•           Cervical Screening (smear tests)

•           Bowel Screening (home test kits)

•           Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA) Screening (ultrasound of abdomen)

•           Diabetic Retinopathy (Eye) Screening (images taken of the eye).

Pregnancy and Newborn Screening Programmes, including tests offered during pregnancy and just after birth, will continue where logistically practical.

There are a number of factors behind this decision, primarily to minimise the impact on essential NHS services as we respond to COVID-19, to facilitate social distancing and to potentially allow the re-allocation of screening programme staff to support these essential services within NHS Boards.

This means the government will pause invitations and cancel all issued screening appointments within a maximum of 48 hours of the decision to pause. Results for those participants who have recently been screened will continue to be processed.  Laboratory activity and testing capacity will be reviewed as the situation progresses.

For cervical screening, prompts and reminders will pause and primary care providers and other clinics will be asked to cease taking samples with immediate effect.

For bowel screening, the Scottish Government will cease issuing kits for the foreseeable future. Kits that are returned will continue to be tested however participants will be asked to keep kits which have yet to be completed until the programme is restarted. Please note that for kits already issued and in participant’s homes, the expiry time is approximately 18-24 months. Individuals who have had a positive screening result but are still awaiting colonoscopy will receive a letter explaining that there will be a delay in this taking place. They will be offered reassurance that the risk of cancer is low and told that colonoscopies will resume as soon as it is safe to do so.

The programmes will be in touch in due course to invite those who have missed invitations, reminders and appointments.

Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick said:

“This has been a difficult decision to take, but it is important to be aware that these screening programmes are focussed on a well population, who are not known to have the conditions they are screened for.
I want members of the public to be assured we will restart screening programmes as soon as it is safe to do so following clinical advice. When this happens invitations will be re-issued and appointments will be re-arranged.
In the meantime, it is absolutely vital for patients in between screening appointments or awaiting a rescheduled appointment to be aware of any symptoms or signs of the conditions screened for. Anyone having these symptoms should contact their GP practice.” 


Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood added:

“While there are risks to individuals through delayed diagnosis of conditions that these screening programmes would have picked up, these risks need to be weighed up in the context of the pressures on the NHS in Scotland posed by Covid-19 and balanced against other difficult decisions we will need to make.
The programmes will be potentially fragile due to staff absences and there are clear risks to patients in being asked to attend for screening. The redeployment of staff to work in other areas is also valuable as part of our national effort to tackle the effects of COVID-19.”

For more information, see the NHS Inform website

Back to news listing