The cancer waiting list to be seen by a hospital specialist will not return to normal levels until next March, health chiefs have admitted.

More than 16,000 patients are being forced to wait 62 days or more for their first diagnosis or treatment, because of the pandemic. Some 12 per cent of these will typically have cancer.

Dame Cally Palmer, the national cancer director for the NHS in England, said that the NHS had maintained cancer treatment at 91 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

But she said that this “masks some variation in different tumour types” – for instance fewer patients have sought care for lung cancer due to similarities with Covid-19 symptoms.

On the cancer “deficit”, she told the health select committee there had been an increase in “long-waiters” – those who have waited over 62 days after they have been referred for a diagnosis, and possibly for treatment, if the diagnosis is confirmed.

“That level is currently at 16,000 and the intention is to return that to pre-pandemic levels by March 2022,” she said.

“It has been coming down so it was considerably higher than that during the peak of the pandemic, but it has been steadily reducing.”

Cancer referrals have fallen during the pandemic

Officials have estimated that 36,000 fewer people than expected have sought care during the pandemic, either because they do not want to burden the NHS or because they are cautious about being in a health facility.

Before the pandemic, the 62-day waiting list sat at 14,266 patients.

It came as a report from the Royal College of Radiologists found the NHS needed at least another 189 clinical oncologists to meet demand.

The survey found that more than half of UK cancer centre clinical directors believed that staff shortages were harming patient care.

The college warned that at the current rate, there would be a shortfall of between 21 and 29 per cent of clinical oncologists by 2025.

The NHS said it was investing £20 million to speed out the rollout of a package of rapid tests to improve cancer diagnosis.