Queen’s speech: Boris Johnson urged to fix cancer backlog at breakneck speed

Britain's health service faces potential one million cancer cases built up during Covid-19 crisis

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MARCH 23: Staff from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary gather outside the hospital for a minute’s silence on March 23, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Marie Curie Cancer Charity has organised a National Day of Reflection on the first anniversary of the day Britain entered Coronavirus lockdown, for the UK to come together and remember the 126,000 people who have died from Covid-19. A minutes silence will be held at midday and yellow ribbons tied to trees across the country. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Britain needs to "move very fast" to save thousands of lives by breaking the pandemic backlog of potentially one million cancer sufferers, a leading surgeon told The National.

The government is likely to place NHS funding at the heart of Queen Elizabeth II’s speech on new legislation on Tuesday, as it seeks to recover from Covid-19.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the government would bring forward a long-term plan for the funding of care for the elderly.

"We are going to bring forward a long-term plan to strengthen and reform social care," he told the BBC.

"We're absolutely determined to bring that plan forward to deliver on our manifesto commitment."

Whitehall officials accept the coronavirus has significantly impacted the NHS and created a huge waiting list of patients. A Downing Street source indicated that the NHS was the “government’s priority” as part of a “national recovery” that will be outlined by the queen.

The proposals will include a bill for tougher policing of protests, legally binding environmental targets and a plan to overhaul the asylum system to deter migrants.

With an estimated 4.6 million fewer diagnostic tests in the last year, cancer diagnosis has plummeted leading to concerns some people will receive treatment too late.

FRIMLEY, ENGLAND - MAY 22: Image released on May 27, Doctors treat a patient suffering from coronavirus on an Intensive Care ward at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey to send to the parents as visiting hours are restricted because of COVID pandemic on May 22, 2020 in Frimley, United Kingdom. The hospital is part of the Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust which has said that with Covid-19 pressure gradually reducing, they are planning to increase the number of procedures it provides, with more outpatient, diagnostic, endoscopy and surgical services and priority given to the most urgent work, for example, cancer diagnoses and treatments. (Photo by Steve Parsons - Pool/Getty Images)
Doctors treat a patient suffering from coronavirus at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey. Whitehall officials have accepted that Covid has caused significant damage to the NHS both in terms of staff and a huge waiting list of patients. Getty Images

Cancer Research UK called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to spend an extra £260 million ($367.5m) on training new staff and for millions more to be spent on equipment to rapidly diagnose the disease.

Prof Karol Sikora, a top cancer specialist, said early diagnostics would be key to saving the lives of a potential one million people.

He said the estimated excess of 35,000 cancer deaths caused by lack of treatment during the pandemic could be accurate. “We just need to push people through to get diagnosed and we should use the private sector to get it done,” said the University of Buckingham lecturer. “One of the biggest problems in getting back to normal is that hospitals have become more inefficient with Covid because everything is slowed down.”

The oncology specialist, 72, whose daughter and three grandchildren live in the UAE, criticised the “ridiculous delays” in Britain between early signs of cancer and diagnosis. “If one of my daughter’s kids in Abu Dhabi has so much as a sniffle, she gets an appointment the next day, yet in Britain if you cough up blood, it might take you six weeks to get treatment.”

He said “Britain will probably have a bigger blip than other countries”, mainly because the capacity of the NHS does not match that of other countries such as France or Italy.

“Britain’s cancer survival rates have nothing to do with treatment, it's to do with the late diagnosis of people who died because of waiting lists,” he said.

In the first six months of the pandemic, Cancer Research UK estimated that three million fewer people in the UK had a cancer screening test compared to pre-Covid levels. The charity said 46,000 fewer patients started cancer treatment in the UK over a 10-month period from February.

“In the queen's speech, we would really like to see the government set out a plan for what it's going to do to tackle that cancer backlog,” said Kruti Shrotri, the charity’s head of policy.

The charity called for additional funding to allow the NHS to operate above pre-pandemic levels to work through the backlog.

HARLOW, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27: Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets staff and sees an MRI CT Scanner during a visit to the Princess Alexandra hospital for an announcement on new patient scanning equipment on September 27, 2019 in Harlow, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister is pledging an overhaul to cancer screening, with the funding providing 300 diagnostic machines in hospitals across England. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow for an announcement on new patient scanning equipment in 2019. Getty Images

“The pandemic has been quite devastating for cancer services and cancer patients,” Ms Shrotri said. “UK cancer survival outcomes lag behind that of comparable countries, even before the pandemic, and the fear is that the situation we've been in this last year is only going to make that worse.”

She warned that the ability to save cancer sufferers was being held back by a lack of equipment and staff to ensure quick analysis. “We know that early diagnosis gives the best chance of survival but we now have a massive backlog of cancer patients who should have been seen over the last year.”

Only 70 per cent of patients had their first cancer treatment within 62 days in February 2021 – the lowest proportion on record – and there has been an 11 per cent drop in cancer operations.

Macmillan Cancer Support estimated that, working at 110 per cent capacity, it would take the NHS 18 months to catch up on missing diagnoses and 15 months to clear the backlog of treatments.

“In the long term, we need to hear from the government about how we can get cancer services at a world-class level, and to get the country to having the best cancer survival outcomes in the world,” Ms Shrotri said.