Almost 100 days after announcing the lockdown, the government in late June announced the beginning of the relaxation of rules implemented to encourage us to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.
In a little over 3 months, the impact of coronavirus, or Covid-19, on medical research charities in the UK has been shattering. Long before the dust has settled, we are beginning to come to terms with what’s been called the greatest threat the charity sector has ever faced.
“The current pandemic has put the future of charity-funded research at significant risk.”
Aisling Burnand, Chief Executive, Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC)
Against Breast Cancer are members of the AMRC, whose membership fund 41% of all publicly-funded medical research nationally. In 2018 this represented £1.3 billion of research funding. 94% of all UK charity funded research takes place in universities and hospitals across the country supporting over 17,000 researcher salaries.
The charity Breast Cancer Now have already announced the cancellation of two forthcoming research grant funding rounds. Similarly, Cancer Research UK have announced an expected 30% drop in income this year which could see research funding cut by £150 million a year.
Amongst the many issues such an enormous reduction in funding will make, we can expect clinical trials to be paused, potentially delaying new cancer treatments. The government’s £750 million charity support package does not provide money for medical research.
On an individual level, early career researchers, including PhD students could find themselves without funding. This raises the risk of potentially losing a generation of researchers to the effects of the pandemic.
The immediate tragedy is of course the rising death rate, the effect of both this and over 300,000 confirmed cases on the NHS has been unprecedented. Waiting lists for treatment are predicted to pass 10 million by the end of 2020. The NHS Confederation has acknowledged it faces “an uphill battle” to restart cancer, stroke and heart care services. Estimates suggest 2.4 million people in the UK are currently waiting for screening.
Breast cancer treatment & care
In Oxford our local NHS Foundation took extensive steps in order to ensure breast cancer treatment and care would not be compromised. These measures included relocating treatment centres to non-Covid 19 locations, prioritising patients presenting with triple negative breast cancer and delaying reconstructive surgery to reduce the length of time patients were required to stay in hospital.
These measures and others were designed to minimise disruption to services and they reflect incredibly well on the dedicated staff who had to contend with, amongst everything else, reduced numbers as colleagues needed isolation or shielding.
Despite all of these measures, doctors have expressed their concerns at the reduction in the number of patients presenting during the lockdown, the number of breast cancer diagnoses they might expect to make on a weekly basis has been for the duration significantly reduced.
The impact of this is difficult to gauge and may not be known for some time. Delays to treatment increase risk and the psychological effects of delays in reconstructive surgery should not be underestimated, particularly in younger women.
Breast cancer research
Throughout the pandemic we have been in constant touch with our research team leaders. Working in some of the UK’s most respected academic institutions from the Universities of Oxford, Southampton and Sheffield to Barts Cancer Institute in London, this group represents some of the country’s leading experts in their chosen fields of research as well as some the world’s brightest and best young researchers.
They each wanted to convey how, during lockdown they have sought to diminish the impact of coronavirus on their work by independently, collaboratively and innovatively using the time to explore and meticulously plan the next stages of their research.
Like millions of others, they all expressed their eagerness at the prospect of returning to work and one message stood out above all – that your support is more important now than ever if we are to ensure we reach our goal – a future free from breast cancer.
To address the concerns expressed by many of our supporters we have published feedback from each of the research teams detailing their immediate plans, future hopes and wider concerns.
We have reassured each of them, as we can everyone who supports Against Breast Cancer, either through fundraising or volunteering, that although fundraising income has fallen significantly during lockdown, our robust long-term planning and close governance will ensure that our current research spending commitments will remain unchanged and research goals are unaffected*.
Read the latest updates from our teams, follow the links below.
* The enormous amount of resources directed towards the development of a vaccine for Covid-19 should not be underestimated. Although still in its early stages, it is our hope that the unprecedented level of work currently being undertaken in this field might provide key learning points that could one day prove of great value with our ultimate goal, of finding a vaccine against breast cancer.