Third of cancer patients wait at least 2 months for urgent treatment

One in THREE newly-diagnosed cancer patients now face waits of at least two months before receiving urgent NHS treatment, official data shows

  • 4,400 cancer suffers in England waited more than 2 months for urgent NHS care
  •  It means only 67% were seen in the two month window, the NHS’s target is 85%
  • Government says pandemic pressure is partly to blame, Labour disputes this 
  • The 85 per cent target was last met in December 2015, nearly six years ago

A third of newly-diagnosed cancer patients in England now have to wait more than two months for urgent treatment, official data shows. 

Only 67.8 per cent of people with an urgent referral from their GP for cancer started treatment within two months in October.   

The result is the worst on record — and far below NHS England’s goal of treating 85 per cent of cancer patients within the crucial time-frame.

While Covid pressures have likely played a role, the problem predates the pandemic with the goal having been missed for almost six years.

NHS statistics showed 4,410 out of 13,691 cancer patients diagnosed in the last two months missed out on timely treatment.

Rapid treatment, in the form of chemotherapy, surgery and the like, is a key factor in improving survival outcomes for patients.

NHS England aims to treat 85 per cent of cancer patients who receive an urgent referral from their GP within two months, but in October 2021 only 68 per cent of patients received treatment in this time frame. The graph above shows the October performance of meeting this target in the health service in England in the month of October from 2010 to 2021

Rapid cancer treatment is a key factor in determining outcomes for patients, charities have called the growing proportion of people facing delays for their treatment as worrying

NHS staffing shortages are a ‘bigger problem’ than rising coronavirus admissions, health bosses have warned.

Thousands of nurses and doctors are having to self-isolate every day because of the rapid spread of Omicron.  

Dr David Nicholl, of the Doctors’ Association, described the ever-growing number of absences as ‘our biggest worry’ over the coming weeks. 

Worst-case scenario modelling projected up to 40 per cent of NHS staff in London — the UK’s Omicron hotspot — could be off each day. 

Hospitals had already resorted to cancelling routine ops before the highly-infectious variant started to spiral, mirroring scenes from the darkest days of the pandemic last spring. And A&E bosses have warned the crisis may leave doctors with no option but to focus on treating the most severely ill patients.

But the staffing absences could cause pile even more chaos onto the health service, which frontline medics say is already ‘functioning on life support’. 

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson told BBC Breakfast: ‘We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences.

‘And quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge… than the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid.

‘So what we’re seeing is in some hospitals, we’re now having to redeploy staff to fill the gaps that are being left in critical and essential services by staff who are off with Covid-related absences.’  

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting referenced his own cancer today as he attacked the Government over the performance data.   

‘I can have no complaints about my own treatment for kidney cancer this year, I owe the NHS my life,’ he said. 

‘But I could see how overstretched staff are and not every patient is as fortunate as I was.’

He also dismissed claims that Covid pandemic pressures were the root cause of the problem, instead saying Government mismanagement was to blame.

‘Patients have been left waiting too long for cancer treatment for years,’ he said. 

Charities also lashed out at the performance data. 

Cancer Research UK’s head of public affairs, Shaun Walsh, said more must be done to avoid a ‘cancer catastrophe’.

This is incredibly worrying, and we’re expecting winter pressures to add more strain to the NHS and its staff,’ he said. 

‘Earlier in the year cancer services showed improvement, but this progress has stalled; the situation is getting worse again. People with cancer can’t afford any more delays.

‘Swift action is needed from Government and NHS leaders to prevent a cancer catastrophe. Government are due to publish a plan on NHS recovery – cancer has to be prioritised and chronic staff shortages must be addressed.’

A Department of Health spokesperson blamed waiting lists on Covid pressures but insisted most services were back to pre-pandemic levels.     

‘Cancer diagnosis and treatment remains a top priority,’ they said.

‘The pandemic has put enormous pressures on the NHS causing waiting lists to grow but now most cancer services are back to or above pre-pandemic levels.’ 

NHS England’s 85 per cent performance target for GP urgent referrals was last met in December 2015.  

There are also fears that there are thousands more patients with cancer who have yet to come forward for a diagnosis because of the pandemic.

Many people were put off seeking help due to No10’s ‘stay at home message’ during 2020, or out of fear of catching Covid. Others had appointments or scans cancelled. 

The authors of the report said it is uncertain how many ‘missing’ cases will return to the NHS over the coming months.  

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