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Cancer Waiting Times and Outcomes

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2023

We are diagnosing and treating patients faster. In March, nearly three in four people were diagnosed or given the all-clear within two weeks—ahead of the 28-day target—and nine in 10 patients start treatment within a month.

In May last year I wrote to the then Health Secretary and the Prime Minister about the case of a young man in my constituency, Elliott Simpson, who was misdiagnosed with a water wart in a telephone consultation with a GP. When Elliott was finally able to see someone face-to-face, he found that he had late-stage skin cancer. He passed away on 28 April, aged just 27.

Between January and March this year, both the two-week wait target and the 62-day target were missed at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust. Does the Secretary of State accept that delays are costing lives?

The whole House will be hugely saddened to learn of the passing of Elliott, especially at such a tender age.[Official Report, 20 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 16MC.]

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of speedy diagnosis, and I was pleased that we met the faster diagnosis standard in February for the first time and again in March, with three in four patients receiving their diagnosis within two weeks and nine in 10 starting treatment within a month. She is also right to point out that there is still variation between trusts, and we are focusing on that in particular, but it is good that nationally we are hitting the faster diagnosis standard.

When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma six years ago, my GP gave me two pieces of advice: keep positive and keep active. The other day, I visited the wellbeing centre in my constituency, which is run by Sheffield Hallam University, the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Yorkshire Cancer Research. It is putting on a programme called Active Together to which people who are diagnosed with cancer can be referred by their consultant and have a bespoke programme of treatment involving physical activity, nutrition and psychological support to prepare them for surgery, and a programme after surgery to help them recover. Would the Secretary of State like to come to my constituency to visit this novel and innovative programme to see how it could be rolled out across the country and treat more cancers well in this way?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting and important point. How we better equip patients pre-surgery and post-surgery, how we look at their wellbeing—the keep positive bit and the social prescribing—and how we think about being active are all are hugely important. I would be keen to learn more about the programme that he highlights and for either me or one of the ministerial team to follow up on his offer.

In March, the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours published its report into research funding, which found that only about £15 million of the £40 million pledged has made its way into the hands of the researchers. Can the Secretary of State set out what we can do to fix these challenges in the funding system so that we can get that money into the hands of the researchers and improve those outcomes?

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has raised this point, because the £40 million of funding is available. That money is there, ready to allocate to quality bids. All the bids that have met the National Institute for Health and Care Research standard have been funded, but she is right to say that there is more money available and we stand ready to work with researchers to get that money allocated as soon as those quality bids come in.

Analysis by Cancer Research UK projects that, by 2040, cancer cases will rise to over half a million new cases a year. Will the Secretary of State confirm when the NHS long-term workforce plan will be published, that it will set out transparent projections for workforce need for the next five, 10 and 15 years, and that it will be fully funded to ensure that there are enough staff to deliver timely diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients?

The hon. Lady is correct to say that demand for cancer services is increasing. We have seen demand up a fifth recently. That is why, alongside the long-term workforce plan, to which we are committed—the Chancellor set out that commitment in the autumn statement—we are also putting over £5 billion of investment into diagnostic centres, surgical hubs and equipment in order to better provide, alongside the workforce, the skills and equipment we need to treat cancer.

What assurance can the Secretary of State give that both the letter and the spirit of section 5 of the Health and Care Act 2022 will be embraced to encourage the NHS to improve early diagnosis and therefore cancer survival rates by focusing on outcome measures such as the one-year survival rate, so that we can start catching up with international averages when it comes to survival?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has long championed this issue. Indeed, he secured an amendment to the Health and Care Act as part of that campaign. We will be fulfilling our obligation by including an objective on cancer outcomes when we publish the next mandate to NHS England, and I hope he will see that as a welcome step.

To improve cancer waiting times and outcomes, and learning from the success of the covid vaccine roll-out where hard-to-reach cohorts were vaccinated in everyday settings such as shopping centres and football stadiums, will my right hon. Friend look at locating more community diagnostic centres away from formal clinical settings in hospitals and taking them out into the community?

This is an innovative and exciting development, thinking about how we offer services in different ways and bring those services to patients much more locally. The community diagnostic centres are a huge step forward in that, but we should also be looking at our engagement with employers, at how we use more tests at home and at the successes we have had, for example, with some of the screening programmes in order to offer more services closer to patients.

The figures on diagnosing people with cancer are certainly improving, but what is getting worse, and has got significantly worse in the last three months, is the starting of treatment for people who definitely have cancer. The figures are now the worst on record, with 19,000 people waiting for treatment, and all the evidence suggests that waiting another week adds 10% to the likelihood of death. Can I please urge the Minister not always to give the rosy, good statistics but to face up to the fact that there are real dangers in the statistics, too?

I know the hon. Gentleman takes a very close interest in this, and we can all see that there is a shared desire to meet the increasing demand. He recognises the progress on diagnostics. Nine in 10 patients are starting treatment within a month, and the all cancer survival index for England is steadily increasing, but I agree that there is much more still to do, which is why we are investing in diagnostic centres, surgical hubs and the long-term workforce plan. I am very happy to continue working with him and other colleagues as we meet this ongoing challenge.

Does the Minister agree that one of the ways we can improve cancer care and outcomes is by supporting brilliant charities such as Chemocare Bags? Emma Hart and her team do an outstanding job of putting together bags, which include fluffy socks, puzzle books, colouring books, mints and lip salve, for those starting chemotherapy at Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor.

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to all those who support Chemocare Bags for the fantastic work they do. That sort of support makes a real difference to patients, and the NHS benefits hugely from the work of volunteers, including those at Chemocare Bags.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) pointed out, the brutal truth is that the Tories have consistently missed England’s cancer treatment target since 2013. Last year, 66,000 cancer patients waited more than two months for their first treatment following an urgent GP referral, and the UK now has the worst cancer survival rate in the G7. Labour will give the NHS the staff, the technology and the reform it needs, and we make no apologies for expecting cancer waiting times and diagnosis targets to be met once again. That is our mission. Why is theirs so unambitious?

We are making significant progress. The hon. Gentleman specifically mentions GP referrals, and there were more than 11,000 urgent GP referrals for suspected cancer per working day in March 2023, compared with just under 9,500 in March 2019, so we are seeing more patients.

Let me give an indication of how we are innovating on cancer. We have doubled the number of community lung trucks, which means the detection of lung cancer at stages 1 and 2 is up by a third in areas with the highest smoking rates. In the most deprived areas, we are detecting cancer much sooner, and survival rates are, in turn, showing a marked improvement.