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  1. Election 2024
12 October 2015

Part II: Is the Government fulfilling its role in the fight against cancer?

In the second in her series of interviews with leading politicians, Larushka Mellor, asks Iain Wright MP, “Is the government fulfilling its role in the fight against cancer?”

By Larushka Mellor

The independent cancer taskforce published its 5-year strategy for cancer with a number of recommendations, in July 2015.  What should the government do to ensure the biggest challenges contained within it are attainable?

The scale of the challenge is apparent. I think we should be as bold and ambitious as possible: scientists, clinicians, patients, the general public and politicians all working together for a single goal: to eliminate cancer within a generation, and Britain at the forefront of this.

The taskforce’s recommendations are achievable and the Government needs to act upon them. Patient experience has to be prioritised and this is difficult when NHS cancer services are under unprecedented pressure and the Government far too often provides contradictory messages. The Department of Health must provide the NHS with the resources and the long-term, holistic stability to allow Trusts to invest in state-of-the-art equipment.  The NHS needs to emphasise prevention and early detection too, but the risk is that under greater financial and workforce pressure, cancer services will be forced to firefight.

The Office of Life Sciences, headed up by George Freeman MP was created as the government’s bridge linking science and innovation with the work of the health service. You have recently taken on the role of Chair of the BIS Select Committee, why is the connection between R&D investment, industry, life sciences and the NHS important for fighting cancer?

This is a health and moral agenda, but I think we shouldn’t shy away from it being an economic and industrial one too. Britain is very strong in life sciences: our unique blend of excellent science and research institutions, world class pharmaceutical and med tech companies and the amazing NHS provides us with an unmatched ecosystem to develop the treatments of the future.

I want our country to be able to be supreme in every aspect of the fight against cancer: inventing the technology and drugs to treat it successfully, manufacturing those things here in the UK and giving NHS patients early access to the most innovative and effective treatments. That means maintaining and expanding the science budget, encouraging life sciences companies to locate here, and giving certainty to NHS funding to allow it to invest in more effective treatments for the long term.

The Office of Life Sciences (OLS) is an important part of that institutional architecture. It can provide the long-term certainty to allow treatments to be devised, researched and then brought to market. Research, development and application of treatments for cancer take longer than any single parliament, and the OLS should be able to provide that confidence over several decades. I’m pleased that George Freeman is leading this: his knowledge, experience and passion for life sciences makes him the best possible Minister in this field – if we have to have a Tory Government, at least some comfort can be derived from this.

However, there remain big concerns. The Innovation, Health and Wealth agenda designed to accelerate adoption of new treatments and technology in the NHS, now seems forgotten, and is an example of a long-standing weakness of this Government: a flurry of announcements and initiatives at the expense of successful implementation and delivery. George Freeman needs to tackle this and we on the Select Committee will scrutinise this.   

NICE and NHS England are working on a sustainable solution to the cancer drug fund (CDF) after it is due to end in April 2016; what confidence do you have in the progress they are making towards this and what role can you and your colleagues play to ensure there is continuity of access to oncology medicines after April?

This is a disturbing example of Government failing to provide the coherence and stability needed in this vital field, sending out the message that cancer drugs policy and provision is ad hoc and devoid of any sort of certainty. The recent delisting of several drugs from the CDF reinforces that sense of chaos, incoherence and inconsistency and undermines confidence for life sciences companies, research institutions and – most worryingly – those patients undergoing treatment. This needs to be tackled as quickly as possible to give reassurance. Parliament can obviously play a role in this but I hope we can go further. I want to see us widen provision to improve access to radiotherapy and surgery too.

 Your constituency of Hartlepool has one of the highest incidences of cancer in the country; what do you see as the biggest challenge to improve cancer outcomes over the next few years?

Our high incidence of cancer is both because of our industrial legacy and our lifestyles that increases the risk of developing cancer, particularly smoking. Smoking cessation clinics have been very successful in Hartlepool and this approach needs to continue. I urge the Government to implement policies that would help my constituents and others across the country, such as a one-week cancer test guarantee, improved screening programmes, and better access to and encouragement for people to see their GP.

Iain Wright is the Labour MP for Hartlepool and the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee.

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