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Covid-19: Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2021

What assessment he has made of the effect of the second wave of covid-19 on cancer (a) diagnosis and (b) treatment delayed during the covid-19 outbreak. (910580)

First, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and his family for his treatment. We look forward to seeing him back in this place in due course.

The NHS has been clear since the beginning of the pandemic that the continuation of urgent cancer treatment must be a priority. Latest data showed urgent cancer referrals continuing to increase, with nearly 88% of all patients seeing a specialist within two weeks of referral and nearly 96% of patients receiving treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. However, I must caveat that by saying that the context for this data was before the recent rise in coronavirus cases. The NHS is open. It is hugely important that any person worried about any symptom comes forward and knows that care is there.

I would like to associate myself with the comments regarding the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and I wish him a speedy recovery.

I also want to thank the hard-working colleagues in the NHS who are doing everything they can to ensure that cancer care and treatment can continue. However, unfortunately, due to the unprecedented demand on ICU capacity caused by the pandemic, an increasing number of urgent priority 2 cancer surgeries have been cancelled. Can the Minister assure me that everything is being done to work with the Treasury to increase capacity available to the NHS by continuing to commission the independent sector to ensure that urgent care and treatment can continue so that cancer does not become the forgotten “c” in this crisis?

I can unreservedly say yes to that. The NHS is under huge pressure and there have been some instances where, for totally understandable and unavoidable reasons such as staff ICU capacity or the safety of patients themselves, treatment has been rescheduled. Any such decisions are always made as a last resort. However, we have changed the way we operate, making sure that we have covid-secure cancer hubs, consolidated surgery and centralised triage to prioritise those patients whose need is most urgent. We have utilised the independent sector, and will continue to do so, to increase capacity. These measures, and, as the hon. Member said, the tremendous efforts of our NHS cancer workforce and their teams, are helping to ensure that those who need treatment can continue without delay.

Throughout the pandemic we have been calling for a cancer recovery plan, so we were glad to see one published in December, but disappointed that it ran only for a couple of months. Events have clearly overtaken us since that publication, and the unprecedented demand on our NHS risks further delays to treatment and to people entering the system for treatment. These plans must now go much, much further. Will the Minister make a commitment today to work with the sector and interested parliamentarians to develop the recovery plan into one that properly addresses the backlog and builds improved treatment pathways for the future?

The cancer services recovery plan was worked on by clinicians and stakeholders, including the charities, to make sure that we had a robust plan for addressing the challenges that have come about throughout the pandemic. The levels remain high for referral and treatment, despite other pressures on the NHS. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I regularly meet Cally Palmer and Professor Peter Johnson, who lead for the NHS in this area. We have made it absolutely clear, since the beginning of the pandemic, that the continuation of urgent cancer treatment is a priority, as is its restoration. We are doing what we can to ensure that swift treatment is there for everybody. I regularly meet all-party parliamentary groups—indeed, I am meeting one on Thursday of this week—so I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that front.

We are going back to Scotland for the second question from Dr Whitford, to be answered by the Secretary of State.

As the Secretary of State highlighted earlier, primary care networks will play a major role in rolling out the vaccine in England, but we have heard previously from MPs that not all areas are covered by such networks. How does he plan to avoid a postcode lottery and ensure equitable access, with outreach into vulnerable ethnic or deprived communities?

Some 99% of GP surgeries are members of primary care networks. The very small minority that are not are being dealt with to ensure that we have fair access to vaccines, and they will of course be covered by invitations to the large vaccination sites as well.

I agree strongly with the hon. Lady that it is vital that we reach into and support those communities who may be more distant and harder to reach both geographically and, in some cases, culturally. The NHS is very well placed to do that and is one of the most trusted public services in encouraging those from all backgrounds to take the jab. Pharmacists, too, will play a vital role in the outreach programme.