Treatment delays leave UK facing cancer emergency, doctors warn

<span>Photograph: NHS England/PA</span>
Photograph: NHS England/PA

Britain faces a cancer emergency because of treatment delays, doctors have warned, saying the care backlog needs the same urgent focus as the hunt for a Covid vaccine.

NHS figures show only 60.3% of the 14,425 cancer patients urgently referred by their GP in October waited less than than two months to start treatment. This was the second worst performance on record and some way below the target of 85%.

Clinicians from Imperial College London, the Institute of Cancer Policy at King’s College, Radiotherapy UK and Check4Cancer said delays to treating cancer patients must be tackled now, adding: “The UK public and the NHS should not tolerate the normalisation of delayed cancer care.”

Writing in the Lancet Oncology journal, they pointed to a “survival gap” compared with many other countries, adding: “Although all NHS backlogs are important, the cancer backlog is the most time-sensitive and the most deadly.

“The NHS and frontline staff need the same urgency and leadership, combined with the authority to work through obstructive bureaucracy, that was given to the Covid-19 vaccine taskforce.”

Related: Navigating the NHS: How patients are affected by delays

The medics said that, when it comes to curing cancer, a four-week delay in treatment “increases mortality by between 6% and 13% for solid cancers, with further increases if the delay is longer … The complex cancer pathways were fragile and failing in the UK before their breakdown during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The 2021 joint all-party parliamentary group cancer summit report highlighted multiple causes for their failure, including a deteriorating workforce crisis, a lack of short-term and long-term planning to address the workforce shortage, insufficient diagnostic [radiology and pathology] and treatment capacity, and an outdated information technology infrastructure.”

A new NHS workforce plan should “lead to major improvements in cancer care”, but “short-term action is needed to save lives now”.

They added: “To immediately improve cancer survival, the UK needs to deliver cancer treatment within the recommended timeframe. No research breakthroughs are needed – just an effective, efficient pathway to diagnose and treat patients with cancer.” To achieve this, the NHS must retain staff and “give them the tools and support they need to do their jobs”.

The team called for major investment in radiotherapy, as it is in danger of collapse, despite the fact that it is needed by at least 53% of UK patients with cancer.

Oncologist and founder of the CatchUpWithCancer campaign Prof Pat Price, one of the report’s authors, said: “This is a watershed moment for UK cancer services – the biggest cancer crisis ever – we can’t accept the normalisation of record-breaking cancer treatment waiting times.

“Clinicians know it doesn’t need to be this way and that we don’t need new ground-breaking research to avert disaster. We need a radical new plan, investment in capacity solutions in treatments like radiotherapy, and the political will to treat more patients on time. If ever there was a time for us to deliver much needed investment into cancer treatment, it is now.”

Dr Amar Ahmad, a GP based in Wilmslow, said: “It’s very clear that Britain is in the midst of a growing cancer emergency. Just as there was a concerted national effort to tackle the Covid pandemic, we need a similar national drive to address the declining state of cancer diagnosis and treatment in the UK.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS is investing billions to expand diagnostic and treatment services to meet increased demand, as well as rolling out new initiatives including straight-to-test services, cancer symptom hotlines and mobile lung scanning trucks, which have already diagnosed over a thousand cancers earlier when they are easier to treat.”