SWIFT action is needed from the Scottish Government to prevent a “cancer catastrophe”, campaigners have claimed, as new figures showed the NHS has again failed to meet a key waiting times standard.

Ministers have set the target of having 95% of patients begin treatment within 62 days of being referred for help because cancer is suspected.

The latest data showed another decline in performance against this in the period July to September 2021, with only 83.1% beginning treatment in this timeframe – down from 84.1% in the previous quarter and below the 87.3% that was achieved in July to September 2020.

None of Scotland’s health boards met the goal of starting to treat patients within two months of referral – and nor was this target achieved for any cancer types.

The latest figures from Public Health Scotland showed that in NHS Orkney only two out of five (40%) of patients referred with an urgent suspicion of cancer began treatment within two months, the lowest rate in Scotland.

Less than three-quarters (71.8%) of those suspected of having bowel cancer began treatment within two days, compared to 76% of those with cervical cancer, 91.5% of those with lung cancer and 92.7% of those with breast cancer.

Campaigners at Cancer Research UK also called for action from the Scottish Government, with David Ferguson, the charity’s public affairs manager in Scotland, saying that in “an exceptionally tough winter for the NHS and its staff” such long waits will “be a huge worry for anyone who’s waiting for cancer treatment”.

He added: “Swift action is needed from Government and NHS leaders to prevent a cancer catastrophe.

“We know the Scottish Government is working on a new NHS workforce strategy. This must include both short term and long-term actions that will ensure we have the right staff in place to detect, diagnose and treat cancer. This will be essential when it comes to tackling waiting times and improving cancer survival.”

It comes as the number of people being referred to help increased by almost a third from the same time last year.

There were 4011 people referred for help in the period July to September – 31.6% more than the same period last year, after cancer screening programmes were paused in Scotland at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest figures showed just over half (50.3%) of those referred for treatment from the bowel cancer screening programme began getting help within two months in July to September.

This compares to 68.4% of patients who were referred after cervical screening, and 94.5% of those referred after breast screening.

Kate Seymour, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Today’s cancer waiting times figures show that the targets continue to be missed.

“Behind every breached waiting time is a person trying to cope with the stress and anxiety of not knowing if they have a life-threatening illness.

“Even before the pandemic, the system was struggling with the sheer numbers of people in need of treatment and support. There is still a backlog in cancer care, and immense pressures on the NHS and its staff, and this is only going to get worse as the winter pressures continue to build.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “These figures show that more patients were treated within the 62-day standard following an urgent suspicion of cancer referral, compared to the same period pre-Covid.

“Although there are still challenges, we recently published the Framework for Effective Cancer Management, providing NHS cancer teams with the tools to effectively manage patients with a suspicion of cancer, from the point of referral to first treatment.

“This will improve both patient experience and cancer waiting times.”