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Coronavirus and screening programmes

The NHS Scotland national screening programmes are now in the process of resuming safely, carefully and in a series of stages. 

Resuming cervical screening

Anyone who was invited for cervical screening before the pause should contact their GP practice to make an appointment. This applies to anyone who was yet to make an appointment or who had made an appointment which was then cancelled.

Appointment invitations and reminders will be posted from mid-July, with invitations sent first to those who receive more frequent (non-routine) cervical screening appointments. Routine screening will resume once NHS Scotland has caught up with non-routine appointments affected by the pause.

Cervical screening

Cervical screening is offered to women (and anyone with a cervix) aged between 25 and 64 years.

The cervical screening test (also known as a smear test) takes a sample of cells from the cervix (neck of the womb) and checks it for human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer.

Women on non-routine screening (where screening results have shown changes that require further investigation/follow up) will be invited up to the age of 70.

  • Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 25 to 35 years of age in Scotland.
  • Around six women in Scotland are diagnosed with cervical cancer every week.
  • Cervical screening is the best protection against cervical cancer.
  • Over 99% of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV.
  • HPV is very common and four out of 5 people in Scotland will have it at some point in their lives.
  • Together with vaccinating boys and girls against HPV and introducing HPV testing into cervical screening we hope to eliminate cervical cancer in Scotland.

From March 2020, HPV testing replaced cervical cytology (looking at the sample of cells under a microscope) as the primary test.

HPV testing is a more effective test for identifying those at risk of developing cervical cancer. We have produced a primary care briefing, FAQs and CPD slides to support the changes in the programme.

We have produced findings from research about women's understanding of HPV and cervical screening.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has also produced a guide for healthcare professionals on talking about HPV (external site).

Cervical screening and health inequalities

A woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer increases if they are or ever have been sexually active, or if they smoke. This is because smoking makes the immune system less effective in fighting HPV.

Another important risk is missing their cervical screening appointment. Evidence shows lower participation in cervical screening in the following groups

  • 25 to 34 year olds
  • women living in areas of high deprivation
  • women with a learning or physical disability
  • black or minority ethnic (BME) women
  • lesbian and bisexual women
  • those eligible within the transgender community.

In 2018/2019, uptake for those aged 25 to 64 in the least deprived areas was 78% compared with 67% in the most deprived areas. Uptake of screening is lowest in the younger age groups and increases with age to a peak at 50-54 years.

Practical barriers include being unable to make appointment times or lack of transport.

Personal barriers such as lack of knowledge or awareness of the purpose and benefits of the test, as well as fear and anxiety about the procedure itself, can also play a role.

Women may have never attended cervical screening or they may be overdue their appointment. Some will also make an informed choice not to attend their cervical screening.

You can also find out more about uptake of cervical screening on Information Services Division’s Cervical Screening Programme page (external website).

Cervical screening toolkit

We have produced a toolkit to help GPs, practice nurses and practice staff to optimise uptake, reduce barriers and ensure women are making an informed choice about cervical screening.

The toolkit includes a range of best-practice approaches that you may wish to try to add value to existing work or optimise participation in your local area.

It also contains more detailed information about the Scottish Cervical Call-Recall System (SCCRS) (external site), the system health professionals use to support the cervical screening programme.

Local and national action

Scottish Government launched the Detect Cancer Early programme (external site) in 2012. This aims to improve survival for people with cancer by diagnosing and treating the disease at an early stage. The 'Get Checked Early' Scottish Government website has information for the public, including cervical cancer and screening information (external site).

Scottish Government’s 2016 Scottish Cancer Strategy (PDF 1.17 MB) (external site) 'Beating Cancer: Ambition and Action' sets out a clear commitment to reduce inequalities in cancer screening.

Cervical screening standards

Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS) has produced a set of standards for cervical screening within NHSScotland.

To support practices to deliver the Scottish cervical screening programme to the highest standard, Scottish Government, NHS Education for Scotland, Healthcare Improvement Scotland and a number of expert clinicians work together to provide quality assured training courses and training standards for sample takers in Scotland.

There are national Standards for Education providers: Cervical Cytology (PDF 1,559 KB) (external site) for education providers. General practices must ensure that all sample takers are appropriately trained to see the cervix fully when taking a sample. This is essential to ensure that the correct cells are being collected and visible changes in or abnormalities of the cervix are identified as early as possible. You may find this resource useful - Cervix chart for sample takers in primary care.

Information for the public

With every cervical screening appointment letter, women receive an information leaflet to enable them to make an informed choice about whether to attend their screening appointment. Leaflets are available in other formats and languages from NHS inform (external site).

A Smear Test Could Save Your Life provides further information on the screening programme for all those eligible as well as answering frequently asked questions about the test, HPV and cervical cancer.

Your Smear Test Results provides information about results of the test and any follow up that is required, as well as any treatment needed.

Your Smear Test After Treatment provides information about what will happen after cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) treatment.

A cervical screening poster encouraging women to take up their smear test invitation is also available.

NHS inform hosts cervical screening information for the public. This includes a short film explaining the screening process and information available in British Sign Language (BSL) and audio format.

You can also go to our campaign page on NHS inform (external site) to access resources to help raise awareness of cervical screening.