The Government’s decision to scrap a dedicated cancer strategy is a ‘catastrophic decision that will cost lives’, experts have warned.
Sajid Javid declared a ‘national war on cancer’ and vowed to produce a ten-year plan aimed at improving care when he was Health Secretary.
But Steve Barclay, who now holds the position, last month announced the plan would be axed in favour of a ‘major conditions strategy’.
That will examine all major conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, dementia, mental health conditions, and musculoskeletal disorders.
Health secretary Steve Barclay, pictured during a visit to Kingston Hospital in south west London this month, axed the ten-year plan in favour of a ‘major conditions strategy’ that will examine all major conditions, including chronic respiratory disease and dementia
The move was criticised by leading charities, with Macmillan saying the 10-year cancer plan promised by ministers had ‘been discarded’, while the CatchUpWithCancer campaign said it was ‘deeply concerned’.
Now, experts writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) have also expressed dismay at the move, arguing a dedicated cancer plan is needed now more than ever.
While survival rates have improved, the UK continues to lag behind much of Europe with the gap set to widen further if the backlog caused by Covid is not addressed.
Professor Richard Sullivan, from the Institute of Cancer Policy at King’s College London, and Dr Ajay Aggarwal, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the Government decision ‘jettisons decades of global consensus that, to deliver affordable, equitable and high quality cancer care, dedicated cancer plans are required’.
They added: ‘Subsuming cancer into an overall non-communicable disease agenda simply signals that cancer is no longer a political priority or reflects a Government not willing to deal with its complexity and escalating costs.’
The pair pointed to a National Audit Office (NAO) study showing that fewer than half of NHS trusts expect to meet key end-of-year recovery and cancer targets, ‘with 2025 targets for diagnostic capacity, funding and productivity in serious doubt’.
A long-term plan for cancer ‘is more critical than ever’ after more than a ‘decade of declining funding for cancer services compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic’, experts say
They added: ‘Cancer is the single largest cause of death in the UK and one of the most serious healthcare burdens for societies.
‘Delivering effective and equitable care requires the co-ordination of an extensive array of interlocking cancer specific pathways…
‘The English NHS, for example, has 60 radiation therapy centres, 50 prostate cancer surgery centres, 163 bowel cancer centres, and 176 chemotherapy units, not including the specialised diagnostics that are only available at selected hospitals.
‘The strategic direction and co-ordination of all these services requires both a cancer specific plan and an array of operational tools to deal with issues of centralisation and variation in practice to avoid inequalities in access and outcomes.’
The experts said a long-term plan for cancer ‘is more critical than ever’ after more than a ‘decade of declining funding for cancer services compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic’.
They added: ‘Such a plan needs to deal with the post-pandemic realities of backlogs for care: sicker patients with more advanced cancers and huge deficits in the cancer specific workforce.’
The pair said that, without a dedicated long-term plan for cancer, services ‘will fracture, costs will increase, inequalities widen, and patients will experience even greater delays leading directly to lost lives’.
Figures show 2022 had the worst waiting times ever for cancer, with more than 50,000 people a month waiting more than two weeks to see a specialist following an urgent GP referral – more than ten times as many as a decade ago.
While record numbers started treatment, those missing out on timely care is increasing at a far faster rate, cancer charities have warned.
Delays to treatment saw some 25,000 people in England with a confirmed diagnosis facing waits of more than a month last year, five times as many as in 2012.
Dr Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy and information, said: ‘Cancer survival in the UK lags behind similar countries, and patients are facing unacceptable waits for cancer diagnosis and life-saving treatment.
‘With a growing number of people expected to be diagnosed with cancer in the years to come, the task ahead is huge.
‘The UK Government must take a long-term approach to transforming cancer care, and give it the attention it deserves.
‘This needs to include bold action to make smoking obsolete, rapidly increasing diagnostic capacity, and investing in research to find new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer so we can improve cancer survival for all.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We are laser focused on fighting cancer on all fronts – prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and funding – so we can deliver the best possible outcomes for patients.
‘More patients are being diagnosed and starting treatment earlier with 92 community diagnostic centres open since 2021 delivering over 3million tests, scans and checks including to detect cancer. We also recently announced a £10million investment in more breast cancer screening units as well as software and service upgrades.
‘Addressing cancer together with other conditions in a joined-up strategy will allow us to focus where there are similarities in approach and ensure care is focused on the patient.’