‘Devastating’ Experts demand urgent action as record 2.7m join cancer backlog

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Health chiefs said unprecedented numbers of patients were referred to specialists between March 2021 and February this year. And NHS insiders are reported to be worried about how the under-pressure services will manage to cope with the giant pandemic backlog.

Thousands of patients were not identified as having symptoms during the two-year Covid emergency. Specialists who fear the final toll may take years to emerge called for urgent Government action.

Michelle Mitchell of Cancer Research UK said: “Cancer won’t wait. We must improve waiting times for diagnosis and treatment to improve survival.”

There are 367,000 fresh cases in Britain every year, equal to around 1,000 a day figures show.

Ms Mitchell, the charity’s chief executive, continued: “Too many people affected by cancer are facing unacceptably long waits.

“We are some way off meeting the Government’s target for diagnosis of 75 per cent of all cancer cases at the earliest stages by 2028.

“To stand the best chance of meeting that target we need action to tackle staff shortages now. Our ambitions to dramatically improve early diagnosis of cancer in this country are dependent on it.”

World-leading oncologist and Daily Express columnist Professor Karol Sikora said: “The urgency of the cancer crisis is there for all to see and it is devastating.

“What we need are tangible solutions which can deliver for tens of thousands of people.”

Dame Cally Palmer, National Cancer Director for NHS England, said: “We are going further and faster than ever before in our ambitions to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage so we can save more lives.

“We have seen record numbers of people coming forward for checks in the last year, but we know there are still at least 30,000 who haven’t started treatment due to the pandemic so it’s vital we keep these referral rates high.”

NHS England said that the 2,657,316 people referred in the specified 12-month period is up on the 2.4 million sent for checks in the time before the pandemic, but only 2,207,293 were seen within 62 days.

The NHS says 95 per cent of cancer patients should wait no longer than that to begin treatment after an urgent referral from a GP.

The target has not been met for six years.

In the pandemic, some people ignored symptoms or were not checked because they were unable to see a doctor face-to-face – and some diagnostic services were closed.

Prof Sikora founded private provider Rutherford Health and has offered his suite of cancer centres to help slash waiting lists. He tabled a not-for-profit deal to health chiefs on December 21 but it has not been taken up.

The former director of the World Health Organisation’s Cancer Programme said: “National infrastructure is stretched, staff are limited and waiting lists have skyrocketed.

“Reinforcing the health service to deal with these issues in the long term is essential, but cancer patients need action now and our network can help to deliver that.

“It’s clear well over 100,000 people have been affected by the cancer crisis. We won’t know the full damage for years and years due to the slow, but relentless, nature of the disease.

“How many life-years will be lost? It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in oncology.”

Rutherford, a UK-listed plc founded in 2015, treats self-paying and insurance-backed adults alongside NHS ones where commissioned to.

The deal would let clinicians at any of the country’s 223 overstretched trusts to refer patients to some of the most highly specified centres in Europe and give those on long waiting lists access to life-saving therapies almost instantly, referred according to individual needs for diagnostic and oncology services.

Rutherford’s Cancer Recovery Contract would see a £400million network of radiotherapy, chemotherapy, proton beam therapy suites, MRI, CT and ultrasound machines at four UK centres open to the public.

Based on a typical patient needing four lots of chemotherapy and 10 for radiotherapy or proton beam therapy, the provider estimates it could treat 30,000 of the most seriously ill NHS patients in three years – equal to adding the same diagnostic and treatment volume at five major acute trusts.

The NHS says that patients already do use Rutherford – but just 500 a year.

MPs last month urged Boris Johnson to end the pandemic-induced backlog by boosting treatment capacity.

Tim Farron, chairman of the all-party Parliamentary Group for Radiotherapy, wrote to the Prime Minister: “A range of cancer experts warn the cancer backlog could be as high as 87,000-100,000 cancer patients.

“Many cancers become incurable if left untreated, with every four weeks of delay leading to a 10 per cent reduction in survival. Furthermore, regional waiting times will translate into cancer inequality across the country and tens of thousands of unnecessarily lost lives without action.

“There is an urgent need to transform access to, speed and quality of cancer care. We urge you to work with your ministers to ensure the delivery of a radical new cancer plan that delivers world-class cancer care to all cancer patients.”

More than six million patients are on waiting lists in England.

Prof Peter Johnson, England’s National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “The pandemic meant that at first we saw fewer patients, but in the last year GPs have been referring people for investigation in record numbers.

“It’s vital people continue to come forward, so if you have a sign or symptom that you’re worried about, such as a persistent cough that is not Covid or prolonged discomfort in the abdomen, please come forward.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “It is positive to see more people coming forward for treatment and record numbers of people receiving life-saving cancer checks.

“We need to go beyond business as usual which is why we are rolling out new surgical hubs and up to 160 community diagnostic centres. Our upcoming 10-year cancer plan …will lead Europe.”

Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation membership body for care commissioners, said the NHS has introduced ways of bringing vital checks closer to people “through innovative schemes such as the use of mobile clinics”.

She added: “Our members have been calling on the Government to be clear about the ongoing threat of Covid-related disruptions…the state the NHS is currently in with over 110,000 staff vacancies and how long it will take for the health service to truly recover.”


It’s encouraging to see an increased number of people being referred for cancer checks.

It reflects the Herculean efforts NHS staff are making to tackle the backlog of those waiting for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

But we know that the pandemic has had a devastating impact and waiting times were being missed before the pandemic struck.

In February, the proportion of patients waiting more than 104 days to begin treatment was at the highest level since the start of the pandemic. Cancer won’t wait.

Long-standing staff shortages are at the heart of the challenges and that is down to chronic under-investment by the Government over many years.

The Government’s forthcoming 10-year Cancer Plan is a vital opportunity to address these challenges.

In the plan, we need to see a clear long-term strategy to tackle staff shortages and invest in the cancer workforce.

We are some way off meeting the Government’s target for diagnosis of 75 per cent of all cancer cases at the earliest stages by 2028.

To stand the best chance of meeting that target, we need action to tackle staff shortages now. Our ambitions to dramatically improve early diagnosis of cancer are dependent on it. 

  • Michelle Mitchell is Cancer Research UK Chief Executive

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