Cancer waiting times in England last year were "the worst on record", Macmillan Cancer Support claimed. Its analysis of official figures over 13 years suggested that 2022 was the first in which all national performance targets were missed in at least one month.
Commenting on the findings, Steven McIntosh, executive director of advocacy and communications at the charity, said: "The Government can no longer sidestep its responsibility for such systemic failures within cancer care."
Using figures from NHS Cancer Waiting Times, Macmillan found that across 2022 more than 600,000 people in England with suspected cancer waited more than 2 weeks to see a specialist following an urgent GP referral. It found that the total number of people being seen by a specialist following referral reached a monthly average during 2022 of 234,756 patients, compared with 100,392 in 2012. This was an all-time high and reflected a "much-needed shift" towards catching up with the backlog in missing diagnoses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the charity commented.
However, it also coincided with new record lows in performance against several targets, according to Macmillan, which found that the number of people waiting too long to be seen by a specialist, or to begin treatment, grew faster than the overall numbers being seen and treated. The charity highlighted several instances when monthly percentage targets were missed, including:
- 72.6% in September 2022 against the 2-week operational target of 93% of GP urgent referral to first consultant appointment
- 63.6% in January for the 28-day 'faster diagnosis standard' against the 75% operational standard
- 89.6% in January against the 31-day 'first treatment' target of 96%
Macmillan applauded the Government's "significant focus" on catching up with the cancer backlog, but said it had "failed to invest in the workforce needed to meet this demand", resulting in a lack of capacity in the system.
England's Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, announced last month that a 10-year cancer plan was to be abandoned in favour of a strategy incorporating several major health conditions. The announcement divided opinion, with cancer charities describing it as "watered down" and "a major downgrade".
Mr McIntosh said: "We need the upcoming Spring Budget to deliver an urgent support package for cancer care, as well as a fully funded workforce strategy implemented right across the NHS in England."
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) pointed to the 2-week urgent referral performance reaching 80.3% in December last year, up from 78.8% the previous month. A DHSC spokesperson said: "The latest figures showing a higher percentage of people with suspected cancer were seen earlier in December compared with November is encouraging.
"We are working to reduce the 62-day cancer backlog, which has fallen 20% since peaking in 2020, but we know there is more to do. We are determined to reduce the time between cancer referral and consultation and have opened 92 community diagnostic centres that have delivered over 2.9 million tests, scans, and checks, including to detect cancer as early as possible."