Tens of thousands of women are to trial at-home smear tests in a bid to cut the number of cervical cancers.
More than 31,000 women will be given kits to carry out the tests in their own home, rather than having the test conducted by a health professional in a GP surgery or health centre.
Health officials said that if the trial is successful it could be rolled out across the NHS in England.
The tests look for strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) which cause most cases of cervical cancer.
The kits will be sent in the post to women aged 25-64 years who are 15 months overdue for a check and live in the London Boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Islington, Newham and Tower Hamlets – where screening appointment attendance is low.
Women who are six months overdue for their test and attend GPs surgeries involved with the trial will also be offered an at-home kit.
It is the first time home screening has been trialled in the NHS in England.
Previous studies have suggested that women may not attend appointments due to embarrassment, fear of the test or cultural barriers.
So it is hoped that conducting the test at home will help encourage more people to take the test.
“This is an important new way to make screening easier for thousands of women,” said Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer for the NHS in England.
“We know there are lots of reasons why women might not attend a screening appointment, including worries about Covid.
“GPs have taken extra precautions to make surgeries safe, and these home kits give thousands of women another option to keep up to date with their screening.
“We would urge every woman to make sure they have their smear test – the earlier HPV is detected the better. It could save your life.”
Women taking part in the YouScreen trial, which is being jointly run by NHS England, Public Health England and Kings College London, will follow the instructions on the test and then post their swabs back for analysis.
They will receive their result in the post, and if HPV is detected they will be contacted for a follow-up appointment.
Dr Anita Lim, from King’s College London – who is leading the study, said: “Self-sampling is a game-changer for cervical screening.
“We know many women aren’t coming forward for screening and almost half of women in some parts of London aren’t up to date with their cervical screening.
“It’s an intimate procedure and a variety of barriers can stop people from attending, even though it can be a life-saving test.
“This simple and convenient swab means it can be done in the privacy and comfort of your own home.
“Women who don’t come for regular screening are at the highest risk of developing cervical cancer, so it is crucial that we find ways like this to make screening easier and protect women from what is a largely preventable cancer.”
Ruth Stubbs, National Cervical Screening Programme manager at PHE, said: “This YouScreen study is the first step in getting closer to HPV self-sampling at home for women across England.
“PHE is also working on a clinical validation study to inform a larger national evaluation of HPV self-sampling at home.
“This work together with the findings from the YouScreen London study, will provide data from England to inform the UK National Screening Committee on the potential impact of offering HPV self-sampling on the prevention and early detection of cervical cancer. ”
Kate Sanger, from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Self-sampling removes so many of the challenges to cervical screening and through our research we know it is very much wanted by women. It has been fantastic to be part of this study and we hope it leads to change that will save lives and the trauma a cervical cancer diagnosis can bring.”
The YouScreen study will run until December 2021.