Opinion: What should the cancer agenda look like for the new Prime Minister?

Cancer

The last couple of weeks has been quite the firestorm for the new Truss administration. When the Prime Minister and the new Government front bench team get past the period of national mourning for the sad passing of the Queen, once-in-a-generation government interventions on the spiralling cost of living and the associated mini-budget, and the whirlwind of other announcements and appearances, they’ll be sitting down to desks groaning under the weight of their in-trays.

We at Cancer Research UK know the health service faces an unprecedented challenge, from workforce shortages to record-breaking backlogs. Cancer Waiting Times targets tell us about the health of cancer services: when wait times are short the service is in good shape, and vice versa. The latest stats for July 2022 reinforced the worrying recent trend of some of the poorest performing months on record, with just 61.6% of patients starting cancer treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral, against a target of 85%. That means in July around 5,400 patients were left waiting longer than this clinically important target, with all the worry for them and their loved ones that these long waits entail. This acute crisis is driven in part by COVID, but we can’t ignore that these are chronic pressures – this target has been missed since 2015.

We have known for some time what is needed. Despite the immense pressures, we strongly believe this is fixable by a Government and NHS leadership who wish to seize the opportunity to deliver progress. Because of that, we believe the work to begin to fix this should begin without delay. And we believe this work, if done well, can truly make our health services world-leading, not world-lagging, for the patients of today and tomorrow.

Unfortunately, and as we saw during the pandemic, we know that cancer won’t pause for a few months to give us a sporting chance to sort ourselves out.

Before the leadership contests were called, Government schedules were laden with plans and promises to tackle the big cancer challenges. We have asked the new administration to focus on delivering three of these:

  • A 10-year cancer plan for England to transform cancer care and deliver world class cancer services.
  • A tobacco control plan for England that sought to “level up” health inequalities and finally stub out smoking ahead of the Smokefree 2030 target.
  • An ambition to boost research and development funding so that the next great scientific and medical discoveries can be made and fostered here, improving cancer diagnosis and care, creating skilled jobs and thriving businesses, and making the UK a science superpower.

The new Prime Minister has already used her first speech to talk about delivering on the National Health Service, and her first Prime Ministers’ Questions to recommit to the 10-year cancer plan. The new Health Secretary immediately set out her stall with the ABCDs of tackling health challenges: ambulances, backlogs, care, doctors and dentists.

CRUK welcomes these commitments early into the new Government’s term. We will work with Ministers and officials to ensure that they avoid the temptation in the face of all those pressures to kick the can down the road, to rely on the promise of plans tomorrow as a placeholder. The fixes and improvements the service needs must start now, with a Government that is bold in its’ ambitions with a credible plan in hand, delivered with the funding the health service needs to succeed.

Firstly, a 10-Year Cancer Plan for England could transform cancer services in this country. Earlier this year CRUK proposed how Government could use this plan to deliver much needed reforms, harness research and innovation and address long-standing issues. In the face of increasing cancer incidence, chronic understaffing and post-COVID pressures, we need an ambitious and fully funded plan for cancer that will help take us from world-lagging to world-leading on cancer outcomes, closing the gap with the very best performing countries.

Secondly, Dr Javed Khan’s independent review on tobacco control sets out a clear roadmap that would help Government achieve its ambition of making England smokefree by 2030, improving healthy life expectancy and easing pressure on the NHS in the future. As part of our campaigning for a Smokefree UK, we echo his recommendations and encourage the Government to incorporate these within the next Tobacco Control Plan for England. This plan should consult the public on raising the age of sale of tobacco, and implement a ‘polluter pays’ fund to finance mass media campaigns and smoking cessation services from the profits made by tobacco companies – measures that will help end smoking for good.

Thirdly, there is fantastic opportunity for the UK’s research and development (R&D) sector. We know the value of research when it comes to health, but it has a big economic boost too. Our report shows that investment in cancer research generates huge economic benefits to the UK economy. For every £1 invested in cancer research, £2.80 is returned in economic benefits. Cancer research – and science and technology more broadly – will be a key part of the UK realising the Prime Minister’s ambition to rebuild our economy. For this ambition to be successful however, the Government needs to fulfil its long-term commitment to a total R&D spend of 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Owen Jackson

We know there’s a lot on right now. There always is, and governing effectively means choosing what to focus on. But these challenges are not insurmountable, and the roadmaps are there. For the 1 in 2 of us who will get cancer in their lifetime, and their friends and family, it’s now up to the Government to show the strong political will to back words with action.

Owen Jackson is Cancer Research UK’s director of policy

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