My Lords, this test requires careful study. The UK National Screening Committee will discuss its appraisal of the available research evidence at its December meeting.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which sounds better than many. However, is he aware that if this test is successful, as is claimed following independent tests carried out in China, Chile and Taiwan, we would be able to avoid the tragic situation of past years whereby, because of delays caused by NHS waiting lists, by the time people are admitted to hospital their conditions are inoperable? As the test has been welcomed as the "holy grail" of cancer, does he not believe that it is most important that people should be made aware of whether it is successful?
My Lords, the only details I have concerning the test are probably those from the same newspaper articles the noble Baroness saw earlier this week. My understanding is that trials continue. I accept that we must make the most use of new and emerging technologies. That is why the National Screening Committee will be watching closely the progress of this particular test and will make recommendations in due course.
As to the specific issues the noble Baroness raised, she will be aware of the recently published national cancer plan which is designed to deal with the issue of waiting to which she referred.
My Lords, I am not persuaded of that. The National Screening Committee has an excellent reputation internationally for the quality of its work. I believe that it is the appropriate body to whom we should refer such situations and tests. I am satisfied that when it reports and advises Ministers, it does so on the best available, robust evidence.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the obstacles to meeting the Government's targets on cancer treatment is the shortage of cancer specialists? Is he concerned, for example, that a maximum two-month waiting time between referral and treatment of patients with breast cancer will be unattainable by the target date of 2002 because of the time that is currently needed to carry out the diagnosis?
My Lords, I fully accept that issues of workforce are important in determining whether we shall meet the target set in the national plan. In relation to breast cancer, I understand that we have made great progress so far as concerns the two-month wait between an initial meeting with a GP to referral to a consultant. The success rate in meeting that particular target is over 90 per cent.
Overall, the NHS plan contains proposals for increasing the number of cancer specialists over the next few years. I am confident that we shall meet those targets. I also believe that we need to increase not only the number of consultants but the number of support workers involved in screening. Again, they are very much a part of our workforce planning.
My Lords, the Minister says that he has read newspaper reports. Does he know that a scientific report published in the Journal of Immunoassay states that more than 90 per cent accuracy has been achieved in the test? Will he also comment on the statement that the people who produce the blood test, which is simple and takes only a matter of minutes, say that they would like to launch it in the private sector first and that they intend to make an application to the Government for permission to do so? Is he sure that the cancer screening group, or whatever other group he suggests, will be confident that the test is successful before it is launched, even privately?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the information that she has provided and I should be glad to read the additional information to which she referred. My understanding is that the National Screening Committee will give this matter consideration at its December meeting. However, at present the test is still undergoing trials. Clearly, any decision made by the committee and any advice that it gives to Ministers must be based on the most robust evidence possible. I assure the noble Baroness that, whatever advice we receive, it will be given the utmost consideration. I share with her the desire to use screening and other tests wherever they are shown to be effective.
My Lords, is my noble friend able to give preliminary indications as to whether this new test would replace the more conventional forms of screening which now take place? If that were to happen, would there be a saving in NHS resources and a speeding up of the screening process?
My Lords, I believe that it would be very unwise for me to go into those matters before the National Screening Committee has considered this particular test. The whole purpose of the screening committee is to give the best possible advice to Ministers. However, it is worth saying that over the past few years in this country screening--particularly for breast cancer--has had a most beneficial effect. Indeed, I understand that through screening in 1998-99 breast cancer was detected and treated in nearly 8,000 women in England.
We need to build on the effectiveness of current tests. In the national plan and the cancer plan we made it clear that we shall undertake pilot studies of other cancer tests where they can be shown to be effective and will assess the effectiveness of those screening tests. As I said, we shall consider very carefully the advice from the National Screening Committee.