Cancer treatment waiting times see ‘concerning spike’ as NHS plans to ditch key measures

Health service has not delivered commitment to start urgent cancer treatment within 62-days since December 2015 amid rising demand and staff shortages

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Thursday 14 March 2019 14:15 GMT
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A quarter of cancer patients in January waited more than two months to start treatment, a concerning rise which means the urgent treatment standard has been missed for more than 1,000 days, experts said.

Official NHS figures for January and February show that performance against key waiting times has continued to plumb new depths despite a milder winter than last year.

The statistics come just days after NHS England announced it intended to abandon several of the targets after years of deterioration, despite fears patients will wait even longer.

A commitment to treat 85 per cent of cancer patients within 62 days of a GP referral is one of the few to be preserved, however it has not been delivered nationally since December 2015.

January figures show its worst performance to date, with only 76.2 per cent seen within the target compared to 81 per cent in December.

“Behind the numbers are real people who tell us how delays cause real anxiety for them and their loved ones at a time when they are already trying to deal with the many worries cancer is throwing their way,” said Dr Fran Woodard from Macmillan Cancer Support.

More than 127,000 people have waited too long for cancer treatment since the target was first missed five years ago, she added.

This underlines the need for new pledges for cancer and other waiting times to be backed by funding and staff.

With more people than ever being seen in hospitals, the four-hour target in A&Es and 18-week wait standard for operations has also deteriorated.

Just 84.2 per cent of patients in February were treated, admitted or sent home with four hours of arriving at the emergency room – the lowest since the target was set up in 2004.

While more than 552,000 people waited over 18-weeks for hip surgery and other operations in February, a rise of 100,000 on the previous year, and waits of nine months or more rose nearly 40 per cent.

Proposals for introducing an “average waiting time” for both measures, and a one hour standard for urgent conditions in A&E, will be piloted this year before the existing benchmarks are dropped.

“Today’s statistics will do little to allay frontline concerns that targets will be changed not on the basis of clinical consensus, but because of political pressure from Tory ministers,” said Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth.

He added that it was “shameful” that cancer performance figures were the worst on record.

Professor John Appleby, chief economist of the Nuffield Trust think tank said the latest cancer waits show a “sharp and concerning” deterioration and that so-called “trolley waits” for patients left for hours despite needing a hospital bed were also rising.

The think tank backs the pilots of new waiting time standards, but Mr Appleby said the NHS is in “stormy waters”.

“It will be hard for managers to implement them and for the public to have faith that this isn’t just lowering the bar while queues continue to go out of the door of A&E,” he added.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “More people than ever before are coming forward for cancer checks, with a quarter of a million more people getting checked for cancer this year and thousands more being treated within the two month target.”

They added that hard working staff had ensured a quarter of a million more people were seen within the four hour window at A&E, and helped cut ambulance delays and numbers stuck in hospital needlessly.

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