Leading Article: It takes more than fine words to defeat cancer

ANOTHER EXAMPLE of the limitations of government by public relations: yesterday the Prime Minister declared a "war on cancer". This is a soundbite with no teeth. It is an unfortunate echo, as our health editor points out on our news pages, of Richard Nixon's "war on cancer" of 1971, by which the technological might of the richest nation on Earth was to eliminate the disease. This betrayed a basic misconception of the nature of cancer and led to a stupendous misallocation of resources. Tony Blair avoided that mistake by ensuring that he did not allocate any new resources at all to his initiative. But that is to learn the wrong lesson from history.

The point is that we now know a great deal about the treatments that are most effective, and so spending large amounts of money would indeed prolong and improve the quality of many lives.

The danger of Mr Blair's self-beatifying publicity stunt is rhetorical overkill. There may not have been any new money announced, but the Government has already started to do the right things.

The truth is that Britain has one of the worst cancer survival rates among comparable countries, largely because it spends too little on the NHS. Treating cancer needs expensive equipment and, even more, expensive drugs. But the Government has substantially increased spending this year and for the next two years, and has targeted resources on specific cancer programmes. Yesterday's new target - to save 60,000 lives over the next 10 years - is also a sensible way to focus minds on outcomes rather than inputs. Rather than declaring metaphorical wars and straining for effect, the Government needs to present a sober picture of steady progress. If only Mr Blair would claim a little less, he might be believed a little more.

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