Britain's hopes of improving its poor record on cancer survival are in doubt after the Department of Health removed all details of progress towards cutting cancer waiting times from its website.

At the last count, more than 80,000 patients were waiting longer than two months from urgent referral by a GP to getting treatment - the maximum laid down in the NHS Cancer Plan.

The Government wants this waiting list eliminated but the latest available figures show no improvement was achieved last year, and there is no information on progress for this year.

Publication of the monthly cancer waiting lists ceased last December, and in June this year the figures were removed altogether from the website.

Long delays in the NHS mean patients have more advanced diseases by the time they are treated and this is thought to be a key reason why British patients die sooner than their counterparts on the continent.

League tables of cancer survival for 22 countries in Europe show Britain is falling below the European average on most cancers. Professor Michel Coleman, the chief author of this Eurocare study conducted between 1990 and 1999, said the main reason for thepoor performance was that patients were diagnosed and treated late. Britain had fewer cancer specialists than other countries as a result of lack of investment in the NHS, he said.

Since 2000, an extra £1.26bn has been invested in cancer services under the NHS Cancer Plan and there have been big improvements in the speed in which patients are seen after referral by a GP. But specialists said yesterday the failure to improve waiting times from referral to treatment was a "big disappointment". There are 250,000 new patients diagnosed with cancer in Britain each year and the latest available figures show that in November 2002 less than two-thirds were treated within two months, leaving more than 83,000 waiting longer. For breast cancer, almost 90 per cent of patients were treated within the two-month limit but for urological cancers (mainly prostate), the figure was 40 per cent.

For bowel cancer it was 50 per cent and for lung cancer,60 per cent.

In all cases, there was no improvement in the speed of treatment compared with eight months earlier. No figures for the current year on numbers waiting more than two months have been released.

Professor Karol Sikora, the visiting professor of cancer medicine at Imperial College London and medical adviser to the HCA private health care group, said the removal of the figures from the website "suggests the Government may be embarrassed by the lack of progress".

He said: "The target wait of two months is already too long. It would be unacceptable in most European countries and in the United States, patients would sue over that sort of delay." The failure to meet the target was mainly due to shortages of equipment and staff, the professor added.

A health department spokeswoman said last year's data on the two-month target was published by the Cancer Services Collaborative, an initiative run by the NHS Modernisation Agency to spread good practice, and that it was "unvalidated".

She said: "They stopped doing it because it was not serving any useful purpose."

Collecting validated data had proved "hugely complicated" and had only just started for breast cancer, she added.