Ministers are under mounting pressure to tackle the cancer backlog after it emerged a crucial NHS target will take another year to meet. NHS England warned that the post-Covid catch-up drive has left hospitals overwhelmed by the number of people coming forward for cancer care.
It was hoped that the backlog of patients waiting longer than 62 days from an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer would be returned to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023.
But NHS officials told MPs that a new target of March 2024 is being discussed with ministers.
And they raised concerns that planned strikes by junior doctors could have a “further impact” on cancer patients.
The health service has seen a record number of referrals for cancer since March 2021.
This has been prompted by the number of people who put off seeking care during the pandemic now coming forward and the growth in cancer rates.
More people are also coming forward as a result of public awareness campaigns or high profile cancer deaths, such as Dame Deborah James.
It has led to fresh calls for further government investment in Radiotherapy – which is regarded as a secret weapon in the war on cancer.
Between 200,000 and 250,000 people are referred for suspected cancer every month, but only around 6 percent of these will have suspected cancer, MPs were told.
Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for NHS England, said that the weekly count of the backlog of patients waiting longer than 62 days from an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer stood at 23,500 – down from almost 34,000 last summer.
“We’ve made very significant progress – so the backlog was at an all-time high of around 34,000 last summer and last week it was 23,500, so we’ve dropped by around 10,000, but there’s still further to go,” she told MPs on the House of Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee.
Dame Cally said she hoped that another recovery target – that 75 percent of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer receive a diagnosis or have cancer ruled out within 28 days – will be met by March 2024, or sooner.
Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer at NHS England told MPs: “I don’t think anybody is comfortable with the fact that we have a large number of people who are waiting too long to get their diagnosis and start their treatment.”
Responding to the committee, leading oncologist Professor Pat Price said: “Yet again we see the target for recovering the Covid induced cancer backlog has slipped back another year.
“We urgently need ministers and officials to face up to the scale of the cancer crisis or we will never tackle it.
“And once again the potential of radiotherapy cancer treatments to do more has not been embraced.”
It comes as former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron highlighted the Daily Express crusade for a boost in radiotherapy funding in the House of Commons.
Pointing out the high cancer treatment waiting times in Cumbria, he told Social Care Minister Helen Whately: “Imagine how terrifying it is to be told you have a terrifying disease and you may be made to wait two months for your first intervention.
“People are dying needlessly. Can I draw her attention to the campaign run jointly by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Radiotherapy and the Daily Express which seeks a £1 billion boost in radiotherapy to increase capacity and update technology.”
Our crusade has been backed by England and Manchester United legend Bryan Robson – a cancer survivor himself, Radiotherapy UK and the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign.
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