Blair launches war on cancer with tea and sympathy - but no more money research

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THE HEADLINE on the Downing Street press notice declared: "Tony Blair leads war on cancer" - apparently oblivious to a disastrous war on the disease waged by another head of state in another country nearly 30 years ago.

In 1971 President Richard Nixon launched the United States on a "war against cancer" with the aim of defeating the disease within a generation. That war involved spending hundreds of millions of dollars: cancer institutes were established, scientists hired and laboratories built.

Two decades after it was launched, cancer rates were still rising in the US and, with the exception of children's cancers and one or two rarer types such as testicular cancer, little improvement had been achieved in survival rates.

The failure of Nixon's war to deliver the Holy Grail of a cure for cancer obscured the fact that most people were dying not because of a lack of scientific progress but because of a failure to apply what was already known - basic facts related to the value of chemo- therapy and radiotherapy. Critics compared the backers of Nixon's vision to the First World War general who declared: "Casualties: huge. Ground gained: negligible. Conclusion: press on."

Tony Blair's war is different - it is backed by nothing but warm words. The Prime Minister declared a new target of a one-fifth cut in the death rate among those under 75, which would save 60,000 lives over the next 10 years. But behind the scenes officials admitted there would be no extra money.

The new targets are matched by no new funds, only a reiteration of old funds already committed, such as the pounds 60m pledged for breast, lung and bowel cancer services and pounds 150m from the National Lottery for new equipment.

Britain's record on cancer survival is worse than any other country in Europe. Six years ago, Professor Karol Sikora, chairman of the World Health Organisation programme of cancer control and the leader of yesterday's Downing Street delegation of specialists, said in an interview: "Britain is consistently at the bottom of the table, which suggests that care here is not as good as in other countries."

Last month, British specialists said 25,000 lives a year could be saved if Britain's record was raised to the average of its European neighbours, through specialist cancer care centres staffed by teams of experts supplied with better access to drugs and modern equipment. Professor Sikora estimated that an extra pounds 100m a year was necessary, plus a one-off investment of pounds 100m for improved facilities

Writing in the Daily Mail yesterday, Mr Blair disclosed that his mother had died of throat cancer at the age of 52, just after he had left university, an event that had a "profound impact" on him.

His wife, Cherie, a campaigner on breast cancer, had lost a beloved aunt to the disease. "Britain's treatment of cancer just isn't good enough," the Prime Minister said.

However, it was not bad enough to warrant levering open the Treasury's purse. Mr Blair apparently believes that improvements can be wrought by serving cancer doctors with tea and biscuits in Downing Street and releasing a couple of heart-tugging stories about the Blair family history.