NHS cancer patients ‘facing post code lottery’ in waits for treatment

Nearly 45 per cent of cancer patients waiting more than two months for chemotherapy in some parts of England, analysis suggests

Andy Gregory
Sunday 27 August 2023 22:50 BST
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Cancer patients in England are facing a “post code lottery” in NHS treatment, Labour has warned, as new analysis uncovered disparities in waits for chemotherapy and tumour removal.

Newly proposed government targets state that 85 per cent of patients should receive cancer treatment within two months of receiving an urgent GP referral.

However that target has not been met since December 2015, with the latest NHS figures showing that just 59.2 per cent of cancer patients receiving their first treatment in June had waited less than two months since referral.

New analysis by Labour has now found large variations in waits for treatment across different parts of England – with the proportion of patients waiting more than two months for chemotherapy ranging from 43.5 per cent in West Yorkshire and Harrogate, to less than 20 per cent in Thames Valley.

In Greater Manchester, fewer than one in 10 patients waited more than two months to have a tumour removed, compared with double that figure in west London and the West Midlands, according to the analysis of NHS data.

People in more deprived parts of the country were also found to be more likely to have a late cancer diagnosis, with 47 per cent in the most deprived communities diagnosed late as opposed to 39 per cent in the least deprived.

“Receiving the fast and quality cancer care should not depend on your postcode,” said Labour’s shadow public health minister Andrew Gwynne.

“Thirteen years of Conservative mismanagement of the NHS has left the health service unable to be there for too many people when they need it. Getting cancer patients treated on time again will be a mission of the next Labour government.”

New government targets aim to see cancer either diagnosed or ruled out within 28 days of an urgent GP referral

So far this year, more than 95,000 people with an urgent referral for suspected cancer have had to wait more than two weeks to see a consultant, Labour said – one of six targets which Rishi Sunak’s government plans to drop in its looming overhaul of NHS cancer targets.

While Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has accused the government of “moving the goalposts”, the push to refine NHS cancer targets has been welcomed by Cancer Research.

The three new targets – as opposed to the current 10 – “should set clearer expectations for patients about when they should receive a diagnosis or have their cancer ruled out”, said Naser Turabi, the charity’s director of evidence and implementation.

Under the new targets, patients who have been urgently referred, have symptoms of breast cancer, or have been picked up through screening, should either have cancer ruled out or receive a diagnosis within 28 days.

Those with cancer should receive their first treatment within 31 days of their decision to undergo treatment, while those who have been diagnosed will start treatment within 62 days from the date of referral.

However, the NHS has not hit the 28-day “Faster Diagnosis Standard” target of 75 per cent since it was introduced as a trial in April 2021, falling two points short according to the most recent data in June.

The NHS has not hit the current cancer target of 85 per cent waiting less than two months since December 2015

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Cancer survival rates are improving, with the overall first year survival rate up 9 per cent to 75 per cent.

“More people are also being seen and treated by record numbers of staff than ever before but we know there is more to do. That is why we have made cutting waiting lists one of the government’s top five priorities backed by a long-term workforce plan.

“We have also opened 114 community diagnostic centres delivering 4.6 million tests, including to detect cancer.”

A source close to health secretary Steve Barclay pointed to his recent announcement of “further action on addressing inequalities in cancer outcomes with a national rollout of the hugely successful lung cancer screening programme”.

“No such initiative exists in the Labour-run Welsh NHS, where cancer patients also wait longer to start treatment,” they added.

Additional reporting by PA

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