The public health crisis caused by coronavirus has had far-reaching implications for other "non-essential" health services, including delays and outright cancellations. This is of course understandable, given the stress placed on Britain’s National Health Service by a global pandemic on a scale not seen in recent history.
One service which is particularly affected is the National Cervical Screening programme, "call and recall" (aka the text message you get reminding you to book a smear test). Screenings have been put on pause in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in many cases postponed in England, while colposcopies for low-risk smear results have also been cancelled.
This in and of itself has serious implications for women and people with cervixes, who may already be concerned about their health. However to compound the situation, it appears that scammers are trying to take advantage.
Public Health England has been forced to issue a warning via local GP surgeries across the country after reports that scammers, pretending to be from the NHS' screening service, are sending women text messages and telling them that they are overdue for a smear test.
Refinery29 understands that the text message scam asks recipients to call a mobile number and hand over personal details, which could leave them vulnerable to fraud.
Public Health England’s advice is not to respond if you receive a suspicious message about cervical cancer.
A warning message received by a member of the Refinery29 team read:
"Important information. Please read! We have been notified of a possible cervical screening text messaging scam where some women are being contacted by text message, claiming to be from the call and recall service to advise they are overdue for a smear test. The message asks to call a mobile number and provide personal details. PLEASE DO NOT RESPOND TO THIS TEXT! This is not coming from NHS Cervical Screening Programme."
Kate Sanger, head of communications and public affairs at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust told Refinery29 that the scam has been flagged to them by multiple members of their online community.
"We know that many women are feeling anxious at the moment about changes to cervical screening due to coronavirus, this includes cancelled appointments," Kate explained. "This scam may be adding to the worry or confusion that many women are feeling. If you’ve had a text you are unsure about or have any questions about cervical screening, get in touch with your GP or call our free helpline on 0808 802 8000."
A spokesperson for Public Health England told Refinery29 that "texts are not used by the call and recall service, only letters" and added that the Action Fraud Line had been contacted.
For the government's advice on how to avoid scams during the coronavirus pandemic, visit their help page.
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.