Cancer survival rates could stall over the next decade due to the impact of coronavirus, MPs have been warned.
The Health and Social Care Committee heard that pausing a lot of major cancer surgery during the first wave of the pandemic had created huge delays and some radiotherapy services were now “on their knees”.
Giving evidence to the committee on Tuesday, Action Radiotherapy chairwoman Professor Pat Price said that cancer treatment should have been prioritised and surgery should not have been stopped.
She added: “The main problem, obviously, is that cancer was not ring-fenced and prioritised as it should have been during the first wave.”
But Prof Price also said that just aiming to get back to pre-pandemic levels of care was not good enough and a radical plan was needed.
The consultant clinical oncologist added: “Back to normal is not OK, we went into this pandemic the lowest of the league in all the high-income countries, so our ambition is to get back to being the worst.
“We have got to do something, we have got to have a radical new plan. Otherwise this goes on and on.”
Professor Mike Griffin, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, said that while the 15 years to 2019 had seen a 10% improvement in cancer survival, it was unlikely to continue over the next decade.
He added: “The good thing about 2019, I can tell you from Office for National Statistics and from CRUK [Cancer Research UK], the previous 15 years had seen, overall from cancer, an improvement in five-year survival and overall survival from all cancers of over 10%.
“I can tell you that we are not going to see that in the next 10 years because of what has happened.
“I think that Professor Price is absolutely right to have an aspiration to go back to where we were in 2019, I would love to go back to where we were in 2019, but it still wasn’t good enough.”
When asked about comments from NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard that cancer treatment starts are back to pre-pandemic levels, Prof Price said: “The standard is 93% of treatment within the 62-day target.
“It’s about 75% now. But remember, that doesn’t tell us everything. That’s the new patients.
“With respect, I think if you’re on the ground seeing what’s going on, it’s absolutely not all right.
“We’ve just done a recent survey, certain places of radiotherapy are absolutely on their knees.”
But an NHS spokesperson said: “Actually, the vast majority of cancer patients continued to receive care throughout the pandemic and cancer services have remained a priority for the NHS, with more than 350,000 people safely starting treatment since the pandemic began.
“Plans are in place to manage an increase in pressure and demand this winter and NHS staff are working hard to treat everyone who needs care so, if you are experiencing symptoms of cancer, please come forward and get checked.”
The committee was also told that there were doubts that the health service would achieve the NHS Long Term Plan ambition to diagnose three-quarters of all cancers at stages 1 and 2 by 2029.
When asked if she was confident the service could turn things around, Prof Price said: “Well, two things. Number one, there is doubt whether we can reach that target of diagnoses.
“But fundamentally you don’t just diagnose the patients, you then have to treat them. Unless we get the treatment side, we are not going to make any improvement in survival.
“If you don’t treat these patients you’re not going to cure them and that’s because we don’t have the treatment capacity we are going to need for this.
“So great, fantastic, all this diagnosis, we absolutely need that. Unless you match that with treatment you’re not going to have any effect at all.”