Government urged to bring forward plan to tackle cancer treatment backlog

Steve Brine, the new health and social care committee chairman, said he would make tackling the backlog his top priority.

Stephen Brine
Stephen Brine

The Government must say whether it intends to bring forward new plans to address the cancer treatment backlog in the wake of the pandemic, the new Tory chairman of the health and social care committee has said.

Conservative MP Steve Brine expressed doubt that the Government still intended to bring forward a new cancer treatment plan.

The former health minister also claimed that holding the Government’s feet to the fire over the backlog would be his top priority, following his election by MPs to the committee chairmanship in early November.

At present, just 61.7% of people in England (the average for 2022/23 so far) receive cancer treatment within 62 days, compared with 77.2% before the pandemic.

NHS England aims for the number of people waiting more than 62 days from an urgent cancer referral to starting treatment to return to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023.

In February, the then health and social care secretary Sajid Javid called for evidence to underpin a new 10-year cancer plan for England.

But Mr Brine questioned the future of the plan, a document he first published as a health minister in 2019.

He told the PA news agency: “In the House last week, in the autumn statement, I asked the Chancellor about a new cancer plan. And he didn’t directly refer to it in the answer to me, and I thought that was a bit strange.”

He also claimed that NHS bosses who appeared at his committee last week were similarly hesitant about the plan, adding: “I’ve been part of this Government and I could read between the lines of what they were saying, is that I don’t think there is going to be one.

“And you know what, if there isn’t, then let’s just hear that. But I’ve written to the secretary of state and said ‘what’s happening with the new 10-year cancer plan, which your office promised and consulted on?’

“They haven’t yet had an answer, but we need to know and the sector needs to know whether they’re producing a new plan.”

He went on: “This is not just ‘I want another plan’, because there’s quite a lot of plans in the NHS.

“This is about bringing together everything that’s happened since, including the pandemic, the new workforce strategy that the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement last week, the independent workforce assessment, and bringing that all together with all the evidence that they collected.”

Mr Brine, whose portfolio as a health minister included cancer, said he was “very passionate” about tackling the backlog for treating the disease.

Jeremy Hunt
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt was Steve Brine’s predecessor as chair of the health and social care committee (Aaron Chown/PA)

Earlier this year he spoke in the Commons about how his mother died of breast cancer during his 20s.

He also described the “total nightmare” of losing his father to pancreatic cancer following the 2019 general election.

The Winchester MP said: “They are two cancers at two ends of the spectrum. One that is very, very treatable if caught early, and one that is very, very hard to catch early and, when it’s not, it’s impossible to treat. So I’ve been touched by both ends.”

Mr Brine said that cancer, along with prevention, would be his priorities as chairman of the committee as he succeeds Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in the role.

He said: “Jeremy, you could probably say patient safety would have been the rock upon which he built his church.

“Mine will be around cancer, and it’ll be around prevention. They are the two pillars.”

Mr Brine dismissed suggestions that preventative health measures were an example of the “nanny state”, telling PA: “When it comes to public health, sometimes the state has a role, actually, this is a publicly funded health service paid for by the taxpayer.

“Therefore we have a right, I suggest a responsibility, to impose ourselves on the public health of the nation, because when that goes wrong, it just falls on to the health service.”

He described prevention as “the new cure” and said his committee would gather evidence to support this.

“As I said in the House a few months ago, if that makes me the nanny state, well, guilty,” he added.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are working at pace to improve outcomes for cancer patients across England, including by improving referral rates – during August, 92% of people started cancer treatment within a month of referral.

“We have also opened over 90 community diagnostics centres so far, which have delivered over two million additional scans, tests and checks.

“We received 5,000 responses to our call for evidence to inform a new cancer plan, and next steps will be set out in due course.”

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