Buried among the savage, £83 billion-worth of cuts announced by the UK coalition government’s controversial Comprehensive Spending Review last week was confirmation that the Department of Health would not be taking forward the previous government’s pledge to introduce a one-week target for cancer testing.
Under the Labour government, the time that it took for a patient suspected of having cancer to be referred from a GP to a specialist was set at two weeks maximum, and the Party promised in its April 2010 election manifesto to further reduce this to one week.
Despite the coalition government’s ring-fencing of healthcare (and pledge to increase it, in “real terms”, by 0.4%), the Spending Review’s retention of the old target is no great surprise. The Tories made no indication of matching Labour’s cancer diagnosis promise in their election manifesto, and, back in July, House of Commons Leader Sir George Young announced that the two-week waiting time was “clinically justified”. Nor is it a surprise to hear Andrew Lansley, the coalition Health Secretary, complain that Labour had never actually identified how the one-week target would be paid for or provided in the first place.
What does seem a tad incongruous is Lansley’s comment on Sunday that the coalition government is “fully committed to improving early diagnosis for people with cancer. Up to 10,000 lives a year could be saved if England’s survival rates were brought up to the best levels in Europe…”
With, according to a 2009 government report*, only 15 of England’s 152 healthcare trusts matching the highest survival rates in Europe for patients suffering from the three most common forms cancer (colorectal, lung and breast), it’s clear that the country was lagging significantly behind Europe even when Labour was tripling the NHS budget and promising swifter diagnosis for cancer patients. On the report’s publication, the then-Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: “I hope the publication of this data combined with the Prime Minister’s pledge to give patients key diagnostic tests within one week of seeing their GP will save thousands more lives.”
Considering the strong arguments that swifter diagnoses at this vital early stage make a huge difference to cancer survival rates, perhaps the one cut the coalition government should be making is to cancer testing times.
*Cancer Reform Strategy, UK Department of Health, December 2009.