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Cancer survival rates risk going into ‘reverse’ amid Covid delays and staff shortages, MPs warn

The Health and Social Care Committee warned that cancer treatments are being rationed and delays in treatment could mean many lives will end prematurely

Cancer survival rates in England risk going “into reverse” as the health service faces staff shortages and prolonged disruption caused by the pandemic, MPs have warned.

A report by the Health and Social Care Committee said that many lives will end “prematurely” due to a combination of a reluctance of some people to come forward and seek help for symptoms, and a delay to treatments during the Covid pandemic.

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Cancer survival rates in England risk going “into reverse”, MPs have warned (Photo: Getty Images)

What did the report find?

The report found that despite NHS efforts to protect cancer services during the pandemic, 36,000 fewer people in England began cancer treatment compared to previous years.

Three million fewer people in the UK were invited for cancer screening between March and September 2020, while between March 2020 and March 2021, 326,000 fewer people in England received an urgent referral for suspected cancer.

Additionally, 4.6 million fewer key diagnostic tests were carried out.

MPs on the committee warned that the delays will mean more people will not have their cancer diagnosed until it has reached a later stage, meaning it is harder to cure or treat.

Even during the latest Covid wave, “vital” cancer surgeries have been cancelled.

The report said: “Disappointingly, even the recent omicron wave of Covid-19 has seen more cancellations of vital cancer treatments indicating the NHS is still not able to access sufficient Covid-free treatment capacity to safeguard treatments and address the backlog.

“Without significant additional efforts, we conclude there is a real risk that the gains in cancer survival will reverse.”

MPs also warned that staffing shortfalls are “jeopardising” progress on diagnosing more cancers at an early stage.

However, the committee said there is no detailed plan to address shortages of clinical oncologists, consultant pathologists, radiologists and specialist cancer nurses for cancer services.

Jeremy Hunt, chair of the committee and former health secretary, said: “Earlier cancer diagnosis is the key to improving overall survival rates however progress is being jeopardised by staff shortages which threaten both diagnosis and treatment.

“We do not believe that the NHS is on track to meet the government’s target on early cancer diagnosis by 2028.

“We are further concerned at the damaging and prolonged impact of the pandemic on cancer services with a real risk that gains made in cancer survival will go into reverse.

“A mother told us of her 27-year-old daughter’s five-month struggle to get a diagnosis of cancer – tragically she died three weeks after it came.

“Unfortunately, many more lives will almost certainly end prematurely without earlier diagnosis and prompt treatment.”

Witnesses also told MPs that they had to “ration treatment” and likened working in cancer services during the pandemic to “working 25 years ago”.

How can the problems be addressed?

MPs said urgent cancer referrals have begun to recover but key waiting time targets are being missed which risk “greater numbers of late diagnoses”.

The committee said the best way to improve cancer survival rates would be to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage, but sufficient staffing is needed to be able to improve early detection rates.

Without proper workforce planning, the NHS will not achieve its ambition of diagnosing 75% of cancers at an early stage by 2028, and without progress more than 340,000 people between 2019 and 2028 could miss out on an early cancer diagnosis, according to the report.

In response to the findings, an NHS England spokesperson said: “Cancer is a priority for the NHS and has been throughout the pandemic – and we have continued to implement new ways to diagnose cancer earlier, including extending lung health checks in supermarket car parks, rolling out awareness campaigns to encourage people to get symptoms checked sooner, and trialling innovations like a blood test to detect more than 50 types of cancer before symptoms even appear.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson added: “We recognise that business as usual on cancer is not enough – that’s why we have redoubled our efforts and are developing a 10-Year Cancer Plan to set out how we will lead the world in cancer care.

“With record numbers of nurses and staff overall working in the NHS, we will tackle the Covid backlog and deliver long-term reform, including by reducing waiting times for cancer patients.

“We invested an extra £2 billion in 2021 and £8 billion over the next three years to cut the backlog and deliver an extra nine million checks, scans and operations by 2025.

“We will also deliver up to 160 community diagnostic centres across the country by 2025, 73 of which are open already.”