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Cancer waiting times at ‘worst recorded level’

Cancer waiting times at ‘worst recorded level’
By Jess Hacker
1 March 2023

NHS England is set to miss its first cancer recovery target under its Covid recovery plan, with cancer times now at their ‘worst-recorded level’, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said.

The health service made unrealistic assumptions about the first year of recovery from Covid, the Committee warned today (1 March), adding it has ‘serious doubts’ that the wider NHS recovery plan will be achieved on time.

In its recovery plan, NHS England set a target to get  the number of people with cancer, waiting 62 days from referral to treatment, to its pre-pandemic level (74%) by March.

But in the first five months of 2022/23, less than two-thirds (62%) of patients met this target, with 11% – or 8,100 people – waiting more than 104 days.

In July 2022, the NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard wrote to ICBs and Trusts outlining that the target was a ‘critical priority for the remainder of the year’.

However, NHS England has now told the PAC – as part of its inquiry into NHS waiting times – that it no longer expects to meet this target by March.

The PAC said: ‘NHS England should be able to treat 85% of people with cancer within 62 days of an urgent GP referral and no one should ever have to wait more than 104 days for cancer treatment.’

It urged the NHS and DHSC to do ‘whatever is required’ to bring treatment to an ‘acceptable standard’.

‘Over-optimistic’ planning

NHS England had also been ‘over-optimistic’ in its elective and cancer care recovery planning, assuming low levels of Covid-19 and minimal winter pressures, the PAC also said.

In its plan, NHS England had set a goal to deliver 30% more elective activity than before the pandemic by 2024/25, and 10% more by 2022/23.

But between April and August last year, elective activity was at 95% of its pre-pandemic level, with the NHS otherwise managing ongoing Covid pressures, workforce gaps and access to primary care.

The PAC called on NHS England and the DHSC to revisit its plan and, publicly, amend the targets to reflect a ‘clear and realistic’ trajectory for the 62-day cancer target and the 52 week wait for elective care.

Additionally, NHS England has not produced a costed version of its recovery plan which outlines how it intends to spend its £14bn allocated funding to recover cancer and elective services, it said.

The PAC report also found:

  • The elective recovery plan relies partly on initiatives with ‘limited evidence of effectiveness’
  • NHS England spent most of the year dealing with ‘tactical issues’ and must improve its programme management
  • The NHS recovery will not succeed without a comprehensive workforce plan for social care.

In November, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that two-thirds of ICSs were expecting to miss NHS England’s elective activity target for the year, with those systems set to lose 75% of the attached funding.

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