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MPs Warn Cancer Survival Rates Could Fall if the Government Ignores Staff Shortages

Cancer survival rates in England risk going into reverse unless the Government and the NHS make significant additional efforts to improve treatment rates, address staffing shortfalls, and clear the backlog of patients needing care, MPs have warned.

In a stark assessment of the state of cancer services, the Health and Social Care Committee predicted that the Government's own target for the health service to diagnose 75% of cancers at stage 1 or 2 by 2028 was unlikely to be met. Based on current efforts, the Committee's own independent expert panel rated progress against the target as 'inadequate'.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it recognised the problem and was developing a 10-year strategy that would "set out how we will lead the world in cancer care".

'No Detailed Planning'

The Committee's report warned that without progress, more than 340,000 people in England would have missed out on an early cancer diagnosis between 2019 and 2028. In 2028 alone, 65,700 people would miss out on an early diagnosis unless action was taken.

It said there appeared to be "no detailed plan" to address specialist staffing shortages, risking progress in diagnosis, treatment, and research.

The NHS needed 189 clinical oncologists, 390 consultant pathologists, and 1939 radiologists, and that it would be short of 3371 specialist cancer nurses by 2030, the report found.

Committee chair, Jeremy Hunt, said: "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."

Witnesses described having to ration treatment, "likening working in cancer services during the pandemic to working 25 years ago", the report said, adding that the cumulative effect of late diagnosis and delayed treatment "will almost certainly mean that many lives will end prematurely".

Among the Committee's recommendations, were that the DHSC should:

  • Develop specific plan to address gaps in diagnostic workforce, short-term and long-term shortages in key professions, and enough money to deliver sustainable long-term increases
  • Publish a detailed analysis of the extent of the cancer backlog to support the delivery of the elective care recovery plan
  • Set out an estimate of what level of additional capacity in NHS cancer services will be needed to address the backlog in cancer services and treatment by March 2023
  • Set out an 'action plan' to ensure that NHS cancer services are able to provide this additional capacity above normal levels

MPs also said that work was needed to address lower rates of early diagnosis in areas of the country experiencing social deprivation.

'Redoubling Our Efforts': DHSC

Last month, England's Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said he had asked cancer organisations and specialists to help formulate a strategy for cancer care for the decade ahead.

A spokesperson at the DHSC said today: "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."

The spokesperson pointed out that the Government had invested an extra £2 billion in 2021 and £8 billion over the next 3 years to reduce the backlog and fund up to 160 community diagnostic centres across the country by 2025.

Workforce Plan Needed

Macmillan Cancer Support said that the report "sounds the alarm" about staff shortages, and the "sheer lack of realistic targets in place to fill the gaps".

Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: "It's vital that the Government comes up with a fully-costed and funded workforce plan to ensure that the NHS has the staff it needs to meet increased demand for cancer and other services now and in the future."

She also appealed for the Government to accept an amendment to the Health and Care Bill going through Parliament that would require ministers to publish regular independent assessments of the number of workers needed in the health and care system.

The Royal College of Nursing said funds were needed to ensure that more nurses could train as cancer specialists because they were "key to treatment being available as quickly as possible".

Lead Image Credit: Getty Images