Tory cancer plan ‘is catastrophic decision that will cost lives’, top medics warn

Tory plans to scrap a dedicated cancer strategy is a “catastrophic decision that will cost lives”, experts have warned.

In a scathing intervention, two top medics said the move is a sign that the government is not willing to deal with the “complexity and escalated costs” of effective cancer treatment.

It comes after the Tories announced last month that they would create a single strategy in England to tackle major illnesses such as cancer, mental health and dementia.

Leading charities voiced alarm – with Macmillan saying the 10-year cancer plan promised by ministers had “been discarded”, while the CatchUpWithCancer campaign said it was “deeply concerned”.

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Professor Richard Sullivan, from the Institute of Cancer Policy at King’s College London, and Dr Ajay Aggarwal, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, have added their voices to the critics.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay faces calls to rethink the strategy

They warned the decision “jettisons decades of global consensus that, to deliver affordable, equitable and high quality cancer care, dedicated cancer plans are required”.

Their article states: “Subsuming cancer into an overall non-communicable disease agenda simply signals that cancer is no longer a political priority or reflects a Government not willing to deal with its complexity and escalating costs.”

The pair pointed to a National Audit Office (NAO) study showing that fewer than half of NHS trusts expect to meet key end-of-year recovery and cancer targets.

This leaves 2025 targets for diagnostic capacity, funding and productivity “in serious doubt”, they said.

The experts added: “Cancer is the single largest cause of death in the UK and one of the most serious healthcare burdens for societies.

“Delivering effective and equitable care requires the co-ordination of an extensive array of interlocking cancer specific pathways…

“The English NHS, for example, has 60 radiation therapy centres, 50 prostate cancer surgery centres, 163 bowel cancer centres, and 176 chemotherapy units, not including the specialised diagnostics that are only available at selected hospitals.

The National Audit Office (NAO) says fewer than half of NHS trusts expect to meet key end-of-year recovery and cancer targets

“The strategic direction and co-ordination of all these services requires both a cancer specific plan and an array of operational tools to deal with issues of centralisation and variation in practice to avoid inequalities in access and outcomes.”

Prof Sullivan and Dr Aggarwal said a long-term plan for cancer “is more critical than ever” after more than a “decade of declining funding for cancer services compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

They added: “Such a plan needs to deal with the post-pandemic realities of backlogs for care: sicker patients with more advanced cancers and huge deficits in the cancer specific workforce.”

The pair said that, without a dedicated long-term plan for cancer, services “will fracture, costs will increase, inequalities widen, and patients will experience even greater delays leading directly to lost lives”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are laser-focused on fighting cancer on all fronts – prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and funding – so we can deliver the best possible outcomes for patients.

“More patients are being diagnosed and starting treatment earlier with 92 community diagnostic centres open since 2021 delivering over three million tests, scans and checks including to detect cancer.

“We also recently announced a £10 million investment in more breast cancer screening units as well as software and service upgrades.

“Addressing cancer together with other conditions in a joined-up strategy will allow us to focus where there are similarities in approach and ensure care is focused on the patient.”

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