It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Chris Bryant and all the speakers in the debate, especially my brave hon. Friend Kate Hollern. I also thank my hon. Friend Grahame Morris and Tim Farron for securing this debate on this very important subject.
Last week, I visited Cancer Research UK’s event in Parliament to raise awareness of issues around cancer. The one message that I came away with is that cancer treatment is being seriously affected by a lack of diagnostic and radiotherapy staff and equipment. In June this year, the Public Accounts Committee said that the ongoing failure of many hospitals to meet targets for cancer and elective care is unacceptable and called on officials to be more accountable for improving standards.
The Royal College of Radiologists welcomed the main thrust of that report on waiting times in England, which clearly urged increased involvement and oversight from healthcare leaders in NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care in order to improve waiting times and safeguard the future care of patients. The Society of Radiographers also supports the call for a workforce increase and for investment in equipment and infrastructure to improve connectivity across radiotherapy networks. Although acknowledging that fantastic care is delivered by all professionals across the patient pathway, it highlighted a comprehensive survey on clinical staff across the country, which identified current staff shortages as a barrier to providing effective and efficient cancer treatments and excellent patient experience. It identified many problems, including missed opportunities for service improvement; insufficient capacity to undertake clinical research; the downgrading of patient experience; competition for scarce staff numbers in the local labour market; and decreased staff wellbeing and morale. There is also a great deal of concern about the impact of the loss of the bursary on staff recruitment and retention.
A recent report by the Department of Allied Health Professions at Sheffield Hallam University said that recruitment to therapeutic radiography programmes in the UK has been problematic for several years, but that this appears to have been exacerbated since the 2017 changes in healthcare education funding from bursaries to the standard student loan system for both fees and maintenance. In 2018, several programmes confirmed that they had not recruited to target, and most had needed to go into clearing to recruit students close to the start date of the course. The general trend appears to be a decline in applications, with the added problem of places being awarded at the clearing stage, which poses a risk that students may embark on courses to which they later find they are unsuited, increasing the risk of students dropping out of their courses. If I have just one ask of the Minister, it is that she commissions a full assessment of the impact on allied health professionals of the replacement of bursaries with loans. These skilled, dedicated and highly qualified staff are the unseen backbone of our NHS, and it is vital that patient care does not suffer because of these changes.
In summary, plans to transform radiotherapy provision and the NHS 10-year plan more broadly must be backed with a long-term cancer workforce plan and associated investment. Without this, the NHS and the Government will simply not be able to fulfil their commitment to patients.