‘Biggest cancer catastrophe ever’ to hit NHS as up to 740,000 potential cases missed

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The NHS is preparing to launch its Elective Recovery Plan in an effort to tackle the backlog waiting for hospital care, as well as prioritise the most urgent cases. 

The plans could see patients able to book their own hospital appointments, check waiting times and travel further for care, if it means getting it sooner. 

Health officials have said those on waiting lists should be able to contact hospitals directly, via the NHS app or phone. But millions of routine follow-up appointments are likely to be axed, in an attempt to prioritise those most in need. 

Health officials have said such schemes would “give the power back to the patient” and mean doctors spend less time on “pointless” appointments which were not necessary.

Four in five people now on waiting lists are waiting for hospital appointments, rather than surgery. Officials say two in three of those waiting for outpatient consultations are “review” checks – which are routinely scheduled every six months for millions of people with long-term conditions, whether or not they are needed. 

‘Chronic staffing shortages are having a devastating impact’

However, charities are worried that insufficient attention has been paid to a growing crisis in cancer care, and shortages of staff. 

Eve Byrne, head of campaigns and public affairs at Macmillan Cancer Support, said:  “This report confirms what we hear day in, day out from people living with cancer. Chronic staffing shortages are already having a devastating impact on cancer patients, and we have major concerns that are only set to worsen without urgent action.

“It could not be more vital that the Government’s imminent Elective Recovery Plan for England includes a clear plan for getting people diagnosed with and treated for cancer. This needs to be backed up by steps to ensure we have enough nurses, so that the NHS is equipped to provide timely and quality care for all people with cancer – both now and in the future.  

“Without these critical pieces of the puzzle, we risk increasing numbers of people facing later diagnoses, poorer care and potentially worse chances of survival.”

Professor Pat Price, an oncologist and co-founder of CatchUpWithCancer, called for urgent action, warning that every month’s delay in treatment could cut survival by a 10th. 

He said the report “shows we are in the middle of the biggest cancer catastrophe ever to hit the NHS”. 

He added: “There is a deadly cocktail of delays across the board, a regional lottery of cancer inequality and a growing cancer backlog. And it feels like the Government and NHS leaders have their heads in the sand.

“We need the Government to urgently outline how additional funding will be spent on cancer treatments, backlog-busting technologies, like radiotherapy, and the cancer workforce. Cancer patients don’t have the luxury of time, if we don’t act more people will die who don’t need to.”

Dr Gary Howsam, vice-chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “GPs take our responsibility to refer appropriately very seriously and we worked hard throughout the pandemic to continue to refer patients with possible symptoms of cancer in as timely a way as possible. 

“There was a drop in urgent cancer referrals at the start of the pandemic, which evidence shows was mainly due to people following official guidance to stay at home, as well as concerns about catching Covid-19 and overburdening NHS services. 

“Referral rates from March to the end of August this year exceeded pre-pandemic levels.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “Treating more than half a million patients in hospital for covid, as well as delivering a world-leading vaccination programme, has inevitably had an impact on some routine and non-urgent care, yet since the pandemic begun the NHS has performed millions of elective procedures and over 450,000 people have started treatment for cancer.”

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