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Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment: Backlogs

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2021

11. What recent estimate he has made of the size of backlogs in cancer diagnosis and treatment. (903659)

The number of people waiting longer than 62 days for treatment following an urgent referral for suspected cancer in England has come down considerably, from 35,000 people in May 2020 to about 19,000 people. The NHS is putting in place extra capacity to diagnose and treat cancer patients, with the aim of clearing the cancer backlog of patients waiting over 62 days from referral to first treatment by the end of March 2022.

To do that, we are going to need healthy NHS staff. I was alarmed to hear Cambridgeshire’s director of public health last week talking about the sheer scale of covid ripping through the school population and then into the parental cohort, many of whom, of course, will be working in the NHS. Peterborough currently has the highest number of cases it has had at any time during the pandemic. So what is the Government’s plan to keep NHS staff healthy, in order to allow them to tackle that alarming cancer backlog?

First, let me say that NHS staff have done a phenomenal job throughout the pandemic in helping patients with cancer or any other illness. A comprehensive plan of support has been in put in place, with this Department working with our NHS colleagues carefully to provide, for example, advice and help. Extra mental health support has been provided as well, and we are looking to see what more we can do.

My late constituent Anne began to suffer pain in April. She never had a GP visit. She had two visits to accident and emergency, which did not result in any treatment plan. Finally, after four months, she had a non-urgent visit to a urologist. Sadly, because at no point was she diagnosed with a terminal condition, she was not given access to hospice care and died in September. I put it to the Secretary of State that this is no way to treat an elderly lady and no way for her family to suffer. What is he going to do to guarantee that there will not be many more Annes in the months and years to come?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that case. I am very sorry to hear about his constituent Anne and send my condolences to her family for what has happened.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that, during the pandemic, sadly, many people stayed away from the NHS, on which there was a huge amount of pressure. Despite everyone, especially those working in health and care, doing as much as they could, it just was not enough for some people. There is not only emergency spending to deal with the pandemic pressures—this year there is an additional £34 billion—but much more investment in equipment and diagnostic processes, such as the community diagnostic hubs that we announced last week, which will help to make a real difference.

Unsurprisingly, I have become more acutely aware of stories about backlogs in cancer diagnosis and treatment, the impact of which should not be underestimated, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s sensitive and sensible response. Will he join me in recognising the multidisciplinary teams throughout the country that are working non-stop to meet cancer pathway targets, including Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, which continued to operate cancer services throughout the pandemic last year and has met the 62-day target for 26 months in a row? Will he consider a visit to the hospital that treated me and thousands of others, to hear how the team there continues to strive to achieve improvements in diagnostic services and outcomes for cancer patients in my constituency and others in Kent?

Yes. It is great to see my hon. Friend, who speaks with real knowledge on this issue. Not only would I be pleased to visit that hospital but I wish to join her in congratulating the multidisciplinary teams throughout the country—especially the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells multidisciplinary trust—that have been doing fantastic work on cancer.

The proportion of people starting cancer treatment within one month has dropped to the lowest level on record. Some 30,000 fewer people are accessing cancer treatment than we would have expected pre-pandemic, and winter pressures have already caused chemotherapy to be paused in Nottingham. The Government’s plans simply are not working and the Secretary of State is denying reality. Will he make a commitment today that there are now sufficient resources for cancer services throughout the winter period that will protect staff from redistribution, so that they can continue to deliver the care and support that cancer patients need?

The hon. Gentleman may have heard me say a moment ago that, of course, cancer remains a huge priority for the NHS. Very sadly, there have been people who have waited longer than 62 days after urgent referral. The number has come down considerably in the past year, to 19,000 as of May 2021, but that is still 19,000 too many, which is why the NHS is rightly committed to clearing that completely by March 2022. That requires a lot more investment. There is the additional £34 billion this year, but it requires long-term, sustainable investment, which is why the plan we have announced for long-term funding over the next three years, with additional funding of at least £12 billion a year for health and care, will make a real difference.