We need urgent action to address national cancer backlog crisis - Tim Farron

OF the many vital issues discussed in recent months, the impact of Covid-19 on cancer treatment must be at the very top of the list for importance to families right across the United Kingdom.

Covid has led to a growing backlog in cancer cases. Photo: PA
Covid has led to a growing backlog in cancer cases. Photo: PA

I want to start by saying very clearly that there is a national cancer crisis — a backlog that we need to catch up with urgently.

Since the start of the pandemic, organisations, charities, frontline NHS staff and MPs have been urging the Government to invest in cancer services to prevent a national tragedy in cancer.

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Indeed, the experts we work with warned at the start of the pandemic that tens of thousands of people were set to die as a result of cancellations, delays 
and disruptions to their treatment.

Tim Farron is a former leader of the Lib Dems. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Sadly, it looks as though those warnings have been proved right, although for thousands of families it is not yet too late for us to catch up with cancer.

We are hearing from frontline staff that services were not yet back to normal before the recent lockdown in November.

One cancer centre has told us that during that lockdown, referrals have yet again “fallen off a cliff”. There is no serious doubt about what is happening to those missing people.

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Their cancers will have grown and spread and, in many cases, become incurable by the time they are identified and by the time, if at all, they are treated. Across the country we hear of patients presenting with more advanced cancers due to not being seen early enough. Some staff tell us that they have never seen such advanced cases.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Radiotherapy, like all the all-party groups on cancer, is strenuous in its insistence on a consensual and collegiate approach, and sees Ministers as partners and not opponents.

Our collective view is that we need urgent action to catch up with cancer. Macmillan estimates that across England as a whole there are a terrifying 50,000 missing diagnoses.

Clinicians report that more patients are now coming through needing palliative rather than curative care – people who could have survived who are now on end-of-life pathways and are simply being treated to alleviate the pain.

That is why I want the Department of Health and Social Care team responsible to sit down with the frontline experts and go through the evidence of the backlog.

There is no way of tackling the problem if the NHS management and the Department are not cognisant of it and prepared to listen to the people working their socks off in cancer units all over the United Kingdom.

I want to make another important point.

Whoever was in power during this time would have been handed the same challenge and would have made many mistakes.

The Government have rightly sought to control the virus so that we can protect the NHS and save lives.

The lives that we seek to save are those at risk from not just Covid but other illnesses, including, of course, cancer.

We as a country have stood together and defended our NHS so that it has the ability to fight cancer in the midst of a pandemic, which is what every clinician is desperate to do.

The great success of this year, for which Ministers should rightly be proud, is that our NHS has not collapsed and did not fall over.

Our doctors, nurses, paramedics and clinicians of every sort have saved lives, defeated the odds and kept our NHS on its feet so that it can fight cancer, and yet a failure at senior levels of NHS England and in Government to recognise the scale and nature of the cancer backlog means that people are dying today who did not need to die.

We first wrote to the Secretary of State about the growing crisis in April, and we have not stopped warning of the devastating impact that there will be on the lives of cancer patients.

Three hundred and seventy-five thousand people have signed the Catch Up With Cancer petition and have hundreds of patients shared their heartbreaking stories.

Experts are saying that there will be as many as 35,000 unnecessary deaths and, as I have said, 60,000 life years lost to cancer because of the impact of the Covid crisis.

Cancer survival rates have been pushed back to where they were more than a decade ago.

But thousands of people could have their lives lengthened or saved, and their families could be spared unspeakable grief, if we acted urgently to catch up with cancer.

Ex-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron spoke in a Parliamentary debate on cancer – this is an edited version.

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