Many thanks to those of you who have contacted me recently about cancer treatment and care and the cancer workforce.
I share your concerns about the impact of the pandemic on cancer pathways. The number of referrals to see a specialist doctor declined by 370,000 last year and the proportion of cancers diagnosed while they are still highly curable has fallen to 41%. Yet even before the pandemic, waiting times were rising and key cancer targets were repeatedly missed.
I am concerned that years of NHS underfunding, cuts and understaffing weakened and exposed our health service as the pandemic hit. As a result, waiting lists now stand at a record 5.7 million, with over 292,000 patients waiting for more than a year for treatment. Behind these saddening figures are people that have not been diagnosed who should have been and patients waiting anxiously to begin treatment. We need a proper plan to address the backlog of unmet clinical need and a credible strategy to recruit and strengthen the cancer workforce to ensure everyone gets the support and treatment they need.
The Autumn Budget and Spending Review outlined additional funding to address waiting lists, yet the Government has refused to guarantee that it will be sufficient to clear NHS backlogs. Its decision to raise taxes to pay for health and social care will disproportionately hit working households and there is still no genuine plan to improve the quality of patient care.
The British Medical Association said additional funding for the NHS is “not fully adequate” to deal with the growing backlog of care, with the Health Foundation estimating it will cost almost £17 billion. Yet Ministers have refused to set out clear, long-term funding commitments beyond 2024/25.
I was disappointed that despite widespread vacancies across the health service, there was also no detail on how the Government plans to recruit or train more doctors and nurses. Chronic workforce shortages and staff burnout are the health service’s biggest challenge. They can only be tackled with a robust long-term workforce plan and proper funding for recruitment, retention, education and training.
I urge Ministers to bring forward a credible plan that will genuinely tackle the backlog of unmet clinical need, address workforce shortages and improve cancer care. It is vital that our health service can provide effective, timely diagnosis and referral, and ensure all cancer patients receive the care and treatment they need.