More than 380,000 cancer patients have faced two-month waits since 2015

A stock image showing a woman undergoing radiation therapy
Three reports on cancer have been released, as the NHS publishes its latest data - Xesai/E+

More than 380,000 patients have had to wait longer than two months to start cancer treatment since NHS targets were last hit in 2015, new analysis has found.

Cancer Research UK said the “general election must be a turning point for cancer” as it published figures showing the scale of the delays.

The report is one of three released on Thursday highlighting the state of cancer care, ahead of the publication of monthly NHS waiting time data.

Another report, by the Royal College of Radiology (RCR), revealed that half of cancer centres are experiencing “routine” weekly delays to treat patients amid a “staggering” shortfall in radiologists and cancer specialists.

The third report, from charities including Young Lives vs Cancer and Teenage Cancer Trust, said children were being “failed by the system”, with half not getting enough support during treatment.

Cancer Research UK said the NHS target to treat 85 per cent of patients within 62 days of an urgent referral was last met in December 2015. It said a lack of staff and diagnostic equipment were to blame.

A stock photo of a doctor talking to a cancer patient
Adult cancer patients face delays, while younger people are not getting the support they need during treatment, charities say - E+

Recent improvements mean the proportion of people starting treatment within two months rose slightly to 68.7 per cent in March from a low of 59.1 per cent in January 2023.

However, Michelle Mitchell, the charity’s chief executive, said each case was someone “facing unbearably long waits for their treatment to begin”.

The General Election must be a turning point for cancer,” she said. “Any incoming UK government must make tackling cancer waits a top priority, and pledge to meet all cancer waiting time targets by the end of the next parliament.

“To do this, all political parties should commit to a long-term, fully funded strategy to back cancer research across the UK and improve and reform cancer services in England, in order to provide our health service with much-needed equipment and staff.”

The Government rowed back on its “war on cancer”, declared by Sajid Javid as health secretary in Feb 2022, instead deciding to include the disease in a “major conditions strategy”, to the disappointment of cancer experts.

The Conservative manifesto restated this plan to incorporate cancer as one of six major conditions it wanted to tackle. The Lib Dems said they would introduce a 10-year dedicated cancer plan and make the 62-day target a “legal guarantee”.

A stock image of a doctor using a mammogram
The Tories have rowed back on their 'war on cancer' - Getty

The Labour party did not commit to a cancer strategy ahead of its manifesto launch but has previously said it plans to double the number of MRI and CT scanners, purchase AI-enabled scanners and deliver 40,000 extra appointments a week.

The RCR report, which included responses from 100 per cent of cancer centre leaders and clinical directors of radiology departments in the UK, found that the number of centres experiencing severe delays had almost doubled in a year.

Forty-seven per cent of centres faced weekly delays in administering treatments like chemotherapy, up from 28 per cent the year before.The situation was similar for radiotherapy, with weekly treatment delays nearly doubling from 22 per cent in 2022 to 43 per cent in 2023.

Almost all clinical directors surveyed said workforce shortages were causing backlogs and delays.

Consultants leaving workforce

The report found that the typical age of consultants leaving the workforce had fallen, from 57 in 2021 to 54 in 2023, with one third under 45.

RCR president Dr Katharine Halliday said it revealed “a stark reality”.

The crisis in the radiology and oncology workforce is jeopardising patients’ health,” she said. “We simply do not have enough doctors to manage the increasing number of patients safely, and this problem will only worsen as demand continues to rise and more doctors leave the NHS.”

She added: “Action from the new government is essential.”

Young Lives vs Cancer co-published a report outlining a “North Star Vision” of what children’s cancer should look like.

‘Children deserve better’

Rachel Kirby-Rider, its chief executive, said: “At the heart of all of this are children and young people with cancer and their families. They’re being failed by the systems around and deserve better.

“We want to build a better future for children and young people with cancer, one where practical matters are taken care of – such as transport, paying bills, and safe and secure housing – and where the wellbeing needs of the whole family are recognised and addressed for as long as they need.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “Cancer survival rates continue to improve in the UK, with the disease being diagnosed at an earlier stage more often. But we know there is more to do.

“We have a clear plan to take bold action which is why we have opened 160 community diagnostic centres around the country which are delivering millions of scans, tests and checks and have committed to building 50 more sites, speeding up results to start treatment more quickly.

“We are also delivering record numbers of doctors and nurses through our long-term NHS workforce plan to ensure we have the workforce we need to diagnose, treat and cure patients with cancer now and in the future.”