The government’s decision to scrap a specific cancer strategy is a “catastrophic decision that will cost lives,” experts warn.
Sajid Javid declared a ‘national war on cancer’ and vowed to create a ten-year plan to improve care when he was health minister.
But Steve Barclay, who now holds the position, announced last month that the plan would be dropped in favor of a “strategy for key circumstances.”
That will examine all major conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, dementia, mental illness and musculoskeletal disorders.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay, pictured visiting Kingston Hospital in southwest London this month, scrapped the ten-year plan in favor of a ‘major disease strategy’ that will examine all major conditions, including chronic respiratory disease and dementia
The move was criticized by leading charities, with Macmillan saying the 10-year anti-cancer plan promised by ministers had been ‘rejected’, while the CatchUpWithCancer campaign said it was ‘deeply concerned’.
Now experts writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) have also expressed their dismay at the move, arguing that a dedicated cancer plan is needed now more than ever.
While survivability has improved, the UK is lagging behind much of Europe and the gap will 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’s decision “throws overboard the decades of global consensus that, in order to , equitable and high-quality cancer care requires special cancer plans’.
They added: ‘Putting cancer into an overall non-communicable disease agenda simply indicates that cancer is no longer a political priority or a reflection of a government unwilling to deal with its complexity and rising costs .’
The pair pointed to a study by the National Audit Office (NAO) showing that less than half of NHS trusts expect to meet key targets for recovery and cancer by the end of the year, “raising serious doubts about the targets”. for 2025 for diagnostic capacity, funding and productivity’.
A long-term cancer plan ‘is more important than ever’ after more than a decade of declining funding for cancer services, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, experts say
They added: ‘Cancer is the leading cause of death in the UK and one of the most serious health burdens on societies.
“Delivering effective and equitable care requires the coordination of a vast array of interlocking cancer-specific pathways…
‘For example, the UK NHS has 60 radiation centres, 50 prostate cancer surgery centres, 163 bowel cancer centers and 176 chemotherapy units, not including specialist diagnostics which are only available in selected hospitals.
“The strategic direction and coordination of all these services requires both a cancer-specific plan and a set of operational tools to address issues of centralization and variation in practice to avoid disparities in access and outcomes.”
The experts said a long-term cancer plan is “more critical than ever” after more than a “decade of declining funding for cancer services, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
They added: “Such a plan must deal with the post-pandemic realities of care backlogs: sicker patients with more advanced cancers and massive shortages in the cancer-specific workforce.”
The pair said that without a specific long-term plan for cancer, services “will break, costs will rise, inequalities will widen and patients will experience even greater delays leading directly to lost lives.”
Figures show that 2022 had the worst waiting times ever for cancer, with more than 50,000 people waiting more than two weeks for a specialist after an urgent GP referral – more than ten times the number a decade ago.
As record numbers begin treatment, the number of people missing out on timely care is rising much faster, cancer charities warn.
Treatment delays meant that about 25,000 people in England with a confirmed diagnosis had to wait more than a month last year, five times the number in 2012.
Dr. Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK’s Executive Director of Policy and Information, said: ‘Cancer survival in the UK lags behind peer countries, and patients face unacceptable waiting times for cancer diagnosis and life-saving treatment.
“With a growing number of people expected to be diagnosed with cancer in the coming years, the task ahead is enormous.
“The UK government needs to take a long-term approach to transform cancer care and give it the attention it deserves.
“This should include bold action to eliminate smoking, rapidly increase diagnostic capacity, and invest in research to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer so we can improve cancer survival for all.” ‘
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘We are laser-focused on fighting cancer on all fronts – prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and funding – so that we can deliver the best possible outcomes for patients.
More patients are being diagnosed and starting treatment earlier, with 92 community diagnostic centers open as of 2021, providing more than 3 million tests, scans and checks, including to detect cancer. We also recently announced a £10 million investment in more breast cancer screening units and in software and service upgrades.
‘By tackling cancer together with other conditions in a joint strategy, we can focus on similarities in approach and ensure that care is focused on the patient.’