NHS 'sleepwalking into cancer disaster'

NHS is ‘sleepwalking into cancer disaster’ with tens of thousands missing a diagnosis due to pandemic disruption, experts warn

  • A coalition of charities, MPs and Royal Colleges are demanding funding increase
  • They say government investment is needed to tackle backlog of cancer patients
  • 370,000 fewer people saw a specialist since the pandemic than the year before 

The NHS is ‘sleepwalking into a cancer crisis’ that is setting survival rates back by up to 15 years, experts have warned.

A coalition of charities, Royal Colleges and MPs are today demanding an increase in funding for cancer services in order to save lives.

They are calling for government investment so hospitals can tackle the enormous backlog of hundreds of thousands of patients.

Some 370,000 fewer people have seen a specialist since the pandemic began in March last year than in the previous 12 months (stock image)

NHS data shows tens of thousands of Britons are missing a diagnosis due to disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which could slash their survival chances. 

Some 370,000 fewer people have seen a specialist since the pandemic began in March last year than in the previous 12 months.

The number of people starting treatment between March 2020 and February is 38,500 lower than expected in a ‘normal’ year. Oncologists say the delays could cost 35,000 lives, and set the UK’s progress in improving survival rates against cancer back by ten to 15 years.

Adrian Rogers, 46, died in February after his life-saving bowel cancer treatment was cancelled during the pandemic.

After 18 months of chemotherapy, Mr Rogers’ family had been given a glimmer of hope in February last year when he was deemed ready for surgery.

He was booked in for an operation in early April at Manchester Royal Infirmary. 

However, when the pandemic hit, the surgery was delayed. The number of tumours in Mr Rogers’ bowels and liver then rose from six to 20 and in August he was told his cancer was terminal and could not be operated on.

At the time, Mr Rogers, of Nottinghamshire, accused the health service of leaving him ‘high and dry’, adding: ‘I do believe that more could have been done to make sure I had my operation when it was an option.’

Today’s declaration has been signed by 14 leading doctors and organisations, including Cancer Research UK, the Royal College of Radiologists and the Institute of Cancer Policy.

It says: ‘We call on the Government to urgently address the Covid-induced cancer backlog and save thousands of lives by allocating funding for cancer services.

Adrian Rogers, pictured with wife Amanda, died in February after his life-saving bowel cancer treatment was cancelled during the pandemic 

‘We further urge the Government to recognise that to catch up with the cancer backlog, NHS services need the tools to “super-boost” capacity above pre-pandemic levels. This means revisiting aspects of the Budget and Spending Review to ring-fence urgent cancer investment.’

They are calling for bureaucracy to be slashed and for investment in equipment, technology and staff so the NHS can treat and diagnose more patients. Extra capacity is essential because cancer services must run at least 120 per cent of ‘normal’ levels to make up for the shortfall during the lockdown.

Professor Pat Price, chairman of Action Radiotherapy, said the NHS has failed to ‘whizz back into action’ now that Covid-19 admissions and cases had fallen to low levels. He added: ‘The NHS said hospitals should be getting back to normal by April 1, but that does not seem to be happening. Diagnostic scans are still being delayed.

‘The NHS cannot deal with the current demand, let alone the backlog. There has been no increased capacity because there is no extra money. The buck has been passed to individual hospital trusts, but there needs to be a central taskforce to prevent a postcode lottery developing. Time is critical.

‘Research has shown we’re back to where we were ten to 15 years ago in terms of survival rates.’

Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron said: ‘We are sleepwalking into a cancer crisis and the lack of action from the Government has left the cancer community in shock.

‘The Government and NHS leaders keep saying they have it under control, but right at the moment we need action.’

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