• Rollout due to begin in autumn 2018 but contracts for kit yet to be signed
  • New test expected to improve uptake of the national screening programme
  • Test a key component of national plans to diagnose more cancers earlier

The rollout of a new bowel cancer test in England, which was due to start late last year, has been held up because supplier contracts for testing kits have not been signed.

NHS England hopes the new test, faecal immunochemical testing, will improve uptake of the national bowel screening programme by making it easier for people to provide samples to be tested. FIT needs one sample from a patient, rather than the six required by the current system.

The public health and primary care minister, Steve Brine, announced last summer the new test would be rolled out into the national screening programme in the autumn of 2018, although an NHS planning guidance document said it was aiming to start the rollout during 2018-19.

However, an NHS England and Public Health England document from October, seen by HSJ, said the health service was aiming for “the delivery of a kit before the end of 2018”.

The NHS said it is confident it will have the paperwork signed and rollout started before the end of March. A spokesperson told HSJ the procurement of FIT “is proceeding as planned with PHE and the NHS working with bowel screening hubs across the country to begin the rollout of FIT in the bowel screening programme in 2018-19”.

Bowel cancer screening is a key element of the long-term plan’s prevention agenda and was highlighted in the long-awaited report as part of the NHS’ efforts to diagnose more cancers sooner.

FIT has been part of NHS England’s screening plans for the past three years but has yet to materialise. The UK national screening committee recommended in 2015 that FIT be rolled out across the country.

The Department of Health and Social Care greenlit the rollout of FIT in England in June 2016 but a procurement process carried out that year did not yield results. 

The long-term plan emphasised the importance of diagnosing people earlier, affirming the prime minister’s announcement at her party conference that the NHS will diagnose three in every four cancers at an early stage by 2028.

At present, bowel screening is offered to men and women aged between 60 and 74 every two years. When FIT is rolled out, the starting age is also due to be lowered to 50, in line with a recommendation from the national screening committee.

Uptake of screening for bowel cancer remains below 60 per cent across England. The long-term plan said trial data showed FIT should improve uptake rates by 7 per cent.

However, uptake figures vary across the country. Participation rates are also low among men, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and people living in more deprived areas. The long-term plan said FIT should “improve participation rates in previously marginalised populations”.

Update: this article was amended at 15.25 on 10 January to clarify it pertained to bowel screening in England and not the UK as a whole.