The NHS will not meet a major cancer target for another year, bosses expect.
According to the health service’s own rules, 85 percent of people with suspected cancer should have their first treatment within two months of an urgent referral from their GP.
However, this goal has not been achieved since 2015.
Due to the knock-on effects of Covid, the backlog of patients waiting longer than 62 days reached an all-time high of 36,000 last summer – more than double levels seen before the pandemic hit.
Health bosses admitted today that despite orders to return the figure to pre-pandemic levels this month, they will not meet the target for another year.
Leading oncologists told MailOnline that the move is “absolutely unacceptable” and “deeply concerning” for cancer patients.
NHS cancer data for December shows only six in ten started treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral for cancer (red line), leaving 5,381 (blue line) patients waiting more than 62 days for cancer care
Dame Cally Palmer, NHS England’s national cancer director, was questioned by MPs about when the 62-day target would come
NHS England’s national cancer director Dame Cally Palmer was questioned by MPs about when the 62-day target would be met and when the backlog would be cleared.
She said the health department is discussing a March 2024 target with Health Secretary Steve Barclay.
This is 12 months later than the March 2023 target set out in the February 2022 elective recovery plan by former Health Minister Sajid Javid, when he also declared a national ‘war on cancer’.
Dame Cally said the NHS has made ‘very significant progress’ in reducing the backlog from a record high of 34,000 last summer to 31,000 in November and 23,500 last week.
She said, “We’re down about 10,000, but there’s still a lot to do.”
The cancer boss blamed the record number of urgent cancer referrals since March 2021 for the spike in the number of people with the cancer backlog.
Between 200,000 and 250,000 people a month – a record number – are referred for suspected cancer, MPs were told.
The increase has been linked to patients delaying seeking care during the now impending pandemic, growth in cancer rates, and awareness campaigns or high-profile cases.
MPs were told there was a ‘major rise’ in suspected cases of bowel cancer following the death of Dame Deborah James.
While only about six percent of those in the backlog will actually have cancer, Dame Cally admitted it’s an “obviously very anxious” time and medics are working the queue “as quickly as possible.”
The latest NHS data for December shows that just six in ten patients (61.8 per cent) start treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral.
It means that 5,381 patents were forced to wait longer than 62 days for vital surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Professor Pat Price, a leading oncologist and co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign, told MailOnline that the missed deadline proves that ‘cancer has gone off the agenda’.
She said: ‘It is absolutely unacceptable that once again there is no plan to clear the cancer backlog.
“As we know, this cancer crisis is the deadliest and most time-consuming of all health arrears.
“Even more heartbreaking is that the targets to reduce these numbers have been pushed back – again – proving that cancer is off the agenda.
“This is very worrying for cancer patients.
‘We are urging the NHS and government to release a dedicated cancer plan, prioritizing cost-effective and immediate solutions, such as radiotherapy.
Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS’s national clinical director for cancer in England, told MPs: ‘I don’t think anyone is comfortable with the fact that we have a large number of people waiting too long to get their diagnosis and begin their treatment’
This is 12 months later than the March 2023 target set out by former Health Minister Sajid Javid in the February 2022 elective recovery plan, when he also declared a national ‘war on cancer’
“But we fear that, as today’s committee meeting proves, cancer care in this country will continue to decline.”
Cancer remains the leading cause of death from disease in the UK, with survival rates lagging those of many other developed countries.
Every four weeks of delay in cancer treatment increases the risk of death by 10 percent, experts say.
The Covid pandemic has had a devastating impact on cancer care, with treatments disrupted and tens of thousands fewer people reporting for checkups.
Dame Cally also told MPs that another target will not be met until March 2024 – despite the NHS itself saying it must be met from winter 2021.
Introduced in 2021, this target means that three-quarters of patients should be told that they have cancer or that cancer has been ruled out within 28 days of an urgent referral.
However, the NHS has failed to do this since its introduction.
The latest NHS data from December shows that 70.7 per cent were diagnosed with cancer within a four-week period. The figure peaked at 74.3 percent in May 2021.
Dame Cally said: ‘We are very confident that with all the measures we take we will achieve that [by March 2024].
“We hope to do it much sooner than March 2024, but that is a backstop. And that is very important for survival.’
Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS’s national clinical director for cancer in England, told MPs: ‘I don’t think anyone is comfortable with the fact that we have a large number of people waiting too long to get their diagnosis and begin their treatment.
“What we have to do is deal with a very large number of referrals.”
He added: ‘About a quarter of all GP referrals to secondary care are for suspected cancer.
“We’ve reduced the numbers that are waiting longer, and the numbers are dropping very quickly right now because of all the work that’s been put into it.”
Dame Cally also warned she is “concerned” about the disruption of cancer appointments due to the 72-hour strikes by young doctors – which begin on March 13.
She said: ‘During the first union action, people were working incredibly hard in the NHS to reschedule patients quickly, and we had a national deviation for chemotherapy and the most urgent cancer operations.
“I am concerned about the union action of young doctors and think it will have even more impact on patients.
‘Sometimes it is quite difficult to reschedule cancer care because there are several teams.
‘I really appreciate the work NHS staff are doing to deliver the very best for patients, so I hope it gets resolved as soon as possible.’