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Cancer Outcomes

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

The NHS’s recovery approach is restoring urgent cancer referrals and treatment to at least pre-pandemic levels and building capacity for the future. Latest data from July suggests that urgent two-week-wait GP referrals are back to over 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he agree that if we are to deliver better outcomes in cancer and all areas of care, our clinicians need the best possible infrastructure? Is not that why it is so important that the Prime Minister confirmed last week that we will deliver our manifesto pledge of 40 new hospitals? Does my right hon. Friend share my delight at seeing on that list a new rebuild for West Suffolk Hospital, to deliver even better outcomes for our constituents?

Yes, I do. I share my hon. Friend and neighbour’s enthusiasm for the rebuild of the West Suffolk Hospital. For treating both patients with cancer and patients with all other conditions, the West Suffolk is a brilliant local hospital that is much loved in the community; however, its infrastructure is getting very old and it needs to be replaced. I am delighted, along with the Minister for primary care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), in whose constituency the hospital is and will be rebuilt, that we are able to make the funding commitment and get this project going.

I understand that we continue to requisition private hospitals. Given that there are patients who are nervous about attending hospitals, could those be used as covid-secure environments for cancer analysis and treatment?

Yes, absolutely. The private hospitals of this country have played a very important role in responding to covid, and we have a contract with them to be able to continue to deliver much needed services, including cancer services. Because by their nature they rarely have the pressures of emergency attendance, we can ensure that they are part of the green part of the health service—that they are as free as is feasibly possible from coronavirus—and therefore safe to carry out all sorts of cancer treatments. They are an important part of the recovery plan.

In my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, patients being treated for cancer at the Royal Stoke University Hospital were relocated to Nuffield Health in Newcastle-under-Lyme. That is an example of practical measures that hospital trusts across the UK have taken to limit the spread of coronavirus since the outbreak in March. As we approach the winter pressures on the NHS, will my right hon. Friend outline the precautions the Government are taking to ensure that cancer patients’ treatments and appointments are not put to the back of the queue and do not suffer from undue delays?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Royal Stoke Hospital has performed brilliantly during coronavirus, and I thank everybody who works there for the efforts that they have gone to. It is critical for everybody to understand that the best way to keep cancer services running is to suppress the disease; the more the disease is under control, the more we can both recover and continue with cancer treatments. I believe that it behoves us all to make the case that controlling this virus not only reduces the number of deaths directly from coronavirus, but enables us as much as possible to recover the treatment that we need to for cancer and other killer diseases.

Following an online meeting with the manufacturer, I am excited to visit the Royal Surrey County Hospital on Friday to see up close the robotics that are used in many soft tissue cancer operations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these clever robots, operated by talented surgeons, help to reduce the size of the incision site and therefore trauma, meaning a swift discharge and recovery for cancer patients, and that they are crucial to ongoing success in hospitals such as the Royal Surrey, which is a world leader in cancer treatments?

I know the Royal Surrey and I enjoyed visiting it, albeit in the rain, in December last year with my hon. Friend. The Royal Surrey is carrying out some of the most cutting-edge treatments for cancer. We have put extra funding in—a more than £200 million fund—for the use of advanced technology for treating diseases such as cancer, and she will have seen that I announced to the House yesterday that we are engaging with the best regulators around the world as we leave the European Union to ensure that we get cancer treatments to the frontline as fast as is safely possible.

York Hospital, like a lot of others, experienced a fall in cancer referrals at the height of the pandemic as a result of residents having stopped going to consult their GP. There is real concern among health professionals in York about the knock-on consequences of that and the rise in the backlog of cancer referrals locally. What steps can the Secretary of State bring forward to assist NHS trusts such as York’s to ensure that the backlog does not lead to late diagnosis of cases, worsening cancer outcomes?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. As I mentioned in response to the first question, we now have referrals back up to over 80% of pre-pandemic levels, but we need to get that up further, because we all know that early diagnosis saves lives. I am also very glad to be able to report that in July, on the latest data, over 90% of patients saw a cancer specialist within two weeks of a referral from a GP, and 95% of patients receive treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat, so those referrals are leading to the action that is necessary. It is very important that the message goes out that the NHS is open, and anybody with a concern over cancer should come forward and they can get the treatment in a safe way that can help to save their lives.

In June’s departmental questions, I pressed Ministers on the cancer backlog that has grown so greatly under covid, so it was alarming that despite those ministerial assurances, between August and September, with infection rates being much lower than they are today, the waiting list to see a specialist grew by 16%. Things will only get harder now that infection rates are rising and with the NHS facing winter pressures, so will the Secretary of State give us a categorical assurance that he has a cancer recovery plan, and that it will drive down the waiting lists each month for the rest of the year?

Yes, absolutely. I think we agree right across the House on the importance of this agenda. The first and most important part of it is to bear down on the long waits, because the longer that people wait, the more dangerous cancer can become. That is happening, and we also have to make sure we bring the referrals forward, because we do not want to have fewer people referred for the diagnostics. At the same time, we are expanding the diagnostics that are available, both in hospitals and increasingly in community hubs, which are safer from a covid point of view and, for the long term, will mean that diagnostic centres for things such as cancer can perhaps be on a high street or in the places where people live, so that they do not necessarily have to go to a big, acute hospital to get the diagnostics part of the pathway done.