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Whatever happened to the Conservatives’ “war on cancer”?

It is not clear that improving cancer survival rates is still a priority for this government.

By Michelle Mitchell

In February, the then health secretary, Sajid Javid, declared a “war on cancer”. The government was committing to publish a ten-year plan that promised to focus on research and innovation, boosting the cancer workforce and tackling inequalities. 

But nine months and two governments later and we have no sign of strategy, plan or funding. Neither Steve Barclay nor Rishi Sunak has uttered a word about it. 

Improving cancer survival is central to our mission. The good news is that, over the last 40 years, cancer survival has doubled. This is cause for celebration, but in recent years, improvements in early diagnosis and cancer survival have been happening far too slowly.  The NHS Long Term Plan aims to diagnose 75 per cent of cancers early by 2028, but Cancer Research UK predicts that to reach this around 100,000 extra patients will need to be diagnosed early (stage 1 or 2) each year in England.  

Earlier this month, Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor and former health secretary, called for public services with “Scandinavian quality” and “Singaporean efficiency”. A nice thought, but today cancer outcomes in the UK lag behind comparable countries, both in Scandinavia and around the world. All of which begs the question: is improving cancer survival still a priority for this Conservative government?  

It’s no secret that the NHS is under immense pressure. Cancer waiting time targets are missed each month and the recent National Audit Office report has shown that plans to bring these waits down by 2025 are at serious risk. NHS England’s target of ensuring 85 per cent of patients start treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral for suspected cancer was missed again in September 2022 and hasn’t been met since 2015. I hear stories from the nurses who operate our helpline at Cancer Research UK, of callers who are distressed and anxious about long waits to see their doctor to investigate symptoms. Cancer is a progressive disease. Just a few weeks can make a real difference to treatment options and how effective they are for some patients.

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Cancer is a fixable problem – but we need the right leadership, a robust plan and sufficient funding. Additional funds for the NHS in England were announced in the Autumn Statement. They make a difference. But the health service needs to transform if it is to respond to increasing numbers of people getting cancer. 

Preventing cancer in the first place must be a priority. The Khan review, commissioned by the UK Government, powerfully outlines how to make smoking obsolete. Steve Barclay needs to accept the recommendations and outline when and how they will be implemented. Together with bold action on obesity, this would help us all live healthier lives and reduce our cancer risk.  

Improving early diagnosis is integral to improving cancer survival. When diagnosed at the earliest stage, at least 9 in 10 will survive bowel cancer for five years or more, compared with only 1 in 10 when diagnosed at the latest stage. We need to diagnose cancers earlier by getting patients tested faster and reducing the time it takes to get results back. Optimising cancer screening services would help to spot cancers earlier when treatment is more effective. Ensuring that the NHS can deliver the most innovative clinical trials would improve patient access to new medicines.

Some government initiatives have been promising. Community Diagnostic Centres offer quicker access to diagnostic tests, and it’s now easier for GPs to refer directly for these tests. But continued investment in kit is essential and underpinning all of this is the need for a long-term costed plan for the workforce. One in ten NHS posts are currently vacant.  

Committing to an ambitious ten-year cancer strategy, plan and funding that improves cancer survival could be a great legacy for the government. It makes financial sense to ensure the NHS is fit for the challenges of the future. It makes moral sense to give people affected by cancer the support they deserve. And it makes political sense for the Conservatives to deliver on their promises ahead of the next general election. But if they fail to act, maybe the Labour Party will.

[See also: The worst of the pandemic may be past, but the NHS is struggling to recover]

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