More than a million patients in England have experienced a delay in their cancer care since Rishi Sunak became prime minister 10 months ago, new NHS figures have revealed.
The House of Commons library’s analysis of official waiting time performance data shows that many people with suspected or confirmed cancer have never seen a specialist for the first time, gotten a diagnosis or started treatment. treatment within NHS target hours since October. .
For example, between October and June, 418,412 people had to wait longer for their first appointment with an oncologist after an urgent referral to a GP than two weeks maximum.
An even greater number – 623,676 – did not receive a cancer diagnosis or were not told they were free of the disease within 28 days after their referral in months. That corresponds to three out of 10 of all suspected cancer patients, said the Labor party, which commissioned the analysis.
The library’s research also confirms what cancer charities have been promoting for some time, that most of the existing nine NHS cancer performance targets have not been met for many years.
Last week, the government and NHS England announced they were scrapping performance measures and replacing them with three successors.
Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, said the inisters were “moving the goalposts” because the long-standing failure of the NHS to meet key cancer targets had become a political embarrassment.
The move has divided opinion among cancer charities. Cancer Research UK welcomed the switch. It believes the new emphasis placed on all suspected cancer receiving a diagnosis within 28 days of a GP referral will benefit patients.
Macmillan Cancer Support also gave the plans a cautious welcome, saying faster diagnosis “should help improve patient outcomes”.
However, Prof Pat Price, a leading cancer doctor and co-founder of the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, accused the government of lowering long-standing targets.
Breast Cancer UK also criticized ministers for lumping cancer into a new strategy of major conditions rather than bringing in a dedicated plan to tackle the disease and improve services.
All the charities are urging the NHS and ministers to give difficult cancer services more staff and more funding to help overcome the delays that have become common and warn that cancer in some people may be too advanced to be treated.
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, added to the confusion surrounding cancer waiting times by suggesting on Tuesday, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that some patients with potential symptoms could avoid the their GP and refer themselves directly to a diagnostic center or specialist doctor.
The British Medical Association accused Barclay of putting forward “an attractively simple plan” that would increase the burden on already difficult diagnostic services.
Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer, chair of the BMA’s GPs committee for England, stressed that detailed medical triage of patients who may have cancer – which is currently carried out by GPs – should continue.
“It may seem like an attractively simple plan to skip the GP and go for a diagnostic test,” he says.
“But, as a GP, my priority when trying to make surgery appointment requests is to find these ‘red flags’ and get the patient in as soon as possible, usually on the same day.
“Like the rest of the overstretched NHS, testing is key – and GPs are expert generalists who have trained for years to know when a patient should be referred for cancer or whether it could be something else.
“This proposal may be a good idea. But it will quickly fill radiology departments, and lead to longer waiting lists for scans, and potentially no diagnoses – putting more pressure on the NHS.”
NHS England says there is “widespread clinical support for changing NHS cancer standards”.
The changes are necessary “to reflect what is most important to patients and to be in line with modern clinical practice”, it explained.