New Clause 57 - Cancer strategy

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 28th October 2021.

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“Within 12 months the Secretary of State must—

(a) publish a new cancer strategy; and

(b) either designate a minister or appoint a national lead with responsibility for enacting its implementation.” —

This new clause requires the publication of a new cancer strategy, with a minister or other person made responsible for its delivery.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 64—Cancer treatment data reporting—

“(1) Beginning within 6 months of the passage of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish each month data on—

(a) the number of patients awaiting treatment for cancer,

(b) the number of patients with a cancer diagnosis, and

(c) what NHS’s previous estimate was of the number of patients who would have a cancer diagnosis at that point in time.

(2) Six months after the publication of the first report under subsection (1), and every six months thereafter, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the action being taken to reduce the number of patients awaiting treatment for cancer.”

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I am conscious of other business, so if I am interrupted, I will not take it as rudeness.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

New clauses 57 and 64 both relate to cancer. It is not quite possible to quantify the damage done by cancer in this country because we end up just throwing big numbers around. In the UK, there are 375,000 new cases and 166,000 cancer deaths each year. Each of those numbers represents a person with a devastated family. I lost my father to cancer in my infancy—35 years ago in January—and that loss is something that lives with a family for the rest of their lives.

We know that one in two people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer. Our investment in cancer services is £5 billion a year, but the cost dwarfs that, at over £18 billion. Nearly 40% of cancers are preventable. Happily—this is something we should be proud of in this country—the developments that we are making in medical and technological areas mean that cancers are increasingly survivable, with the survival rate doubling in the last four decades. Better diagnosis and treatments mean that nearly 50% of those diagnosed with cancer in England and Wales now survive for 10 or more years, and there is no reason for that to stop increasing.

The reason for new clause 57 is that we need a proper national-level cancer strategy. During the pandemic we talked about dealing with the backlog, which I will address shortly. We got to the point where there was a recovery strategy for about three months at about this time last year, and then it was suggested that local communities had to respond, but I do not think that quite does it. We need a national-level strategy with a national-level lead to make sure it gets the necessary attention. Again, we must improve our access to data, but I will not labour the points I made earlier.

With regard to the backlog now, last month there was a very worrying report from the Institute for Public Policy Research on building back cancer services in England, with missing patient backlogs a particular concern. The pandemic led to 37% fewer endoscopies, 25% fewer MRIs and 10% fewer CT scans between March 2020 and February 2021. Every four-week delay in diagnosis and treatment leads to a 10% loss in survival rate. With nearly 370,000 fewer people than expected referred to a specialist, it is estimated that we are close to 20,000 missing diagnoses, and are therefore starting to see a fall again in the number of cancers diagnosed while still highly curable, so lives are at stake here. A national strategy where all the partners have very clear roles would be very good.

New clause 64 is about data; the two new clauses are well read together. This is about being honest about the data and the impact of the pandemic, and also the impact of an underserved NHS in the run-up to the pandemic, which meant that cancer targets had not been met for a very long time. We need to pull that together in one honest appraisal of the situation so that we can start to plan to tackle it. It is absolutely fundamental for families.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 4:15 pm, 28th October 2021

New clause 57 seeks to commission, as the shadow Minister has said, a new cancer strategy and to designate a Minister or appoint a national lead with responsibility for enacting its implementation. The Government’s current cancer strategy is incorporated in the NHS long-term plan, published in 2019. That plan sets out ambitions that by 2028 the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stages 1 and 2 will rise from around 54% to 75% of cancer patients, and 55,000 more people each year will survive their cancer for at least five years after diagnosis. The shadow Minister is right to highlight the importance of the issue as something that touches everyone in some way, directly or indirectly. In the midst of the pandemic last year, I lost my uncle to cancer, and I suspect families all over the country are experiencing something similar among their family and friends. That is in the nature of the disease that we are talking about.

The NHS long-term plan contains a series of commitments to support the ambition. It focuses primarily on fast and early diagnosis, raising greater awareness of the symptoms of cancer, lowering the threshold for referral by GPs, accelerating access to diagnosis and treatment, and maximising the number of cancers that we can identify through screening. That ambition was intentionally set at a stretching level. Achieving it requires material progress in all of the long-term plan’s activities as well as successful innovation. The covid-19 pandemic has made the ambition even more challenging because of the additional pressure it has put on the NHS. It is still too early to assess the extent of the pandemic’s effect on that ambition in the long term. We remain absolutely committed to the need to prioritise earlier diagnosis to improve cancer outcomes. This ambition was strongly supported by the many cancer charities that worked with us to agree the priorities for the NHS cancer programme, and I pay tribute to them all.

I understand the intention behind the new clause. The covid-19 pandemic affected all NHS services in creating an environment unforeseen at the time by the long-term plan. In response to the pandemic, NHS England and NHS Improvement set up the cancer recovery taskforce, which provided advice and guidance on the national strategy for the recovery of cancer services. It monitored progress against the aims of restoring demand, reducing waiting times and ensuring sufficient capacity for cancer diagnosis and treatment. The taskforce published the cancer recovery plan in December last year, which fed into NHS operational and planning guidance outlining how the NHS would return to its pre-pandemic cancer performance within the long-term plan. It is thanks to the taskforce and forward planning that the CQC’s “State of Care 2020/21” report says that cancer services have achieved the best response and recovery, generally closing the gap in access on pre-pandemic levels more than any other area, although it notes that this still leaves a large backlog, which the recovery plan is focused on tackling.

The long-term plan commits NHS England and NHS Improvement to speed up the path from innovation to business as usual, spreading proven new techniques and technologies and reducing variations. I therefore consider the new clause, while it covers an important issue and quite rightly draws it to the attention of the Committee, not strictly necessary, because an ambitious cancer plan is already embedded in the long-term plan, with clear plans in place to support the recovery of cancer services from the pandemic specifically. We are fully committed to the actions within these plans and to seeing the long-term plan to its conclusion.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

The Minister has not mentioned the workforce, specifically in radiology, which is very much the central specialty in diagnosing cancer. The data show that, once someone has been recognised as a cancer patient, they are still being treated relatively quickly—as he highlights, there is a shorter gap—but the problem is actually diagnosing someone, and the radiology workforce has a drastic shortage.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is distinguished in this field herself, from her previous career. She quite rightly highlights the importance of the workforce. Since 2010, in both radiology and radiography, there have been significant percentage increases in the workforce of those specialist professions. However, she is right to highlight that, while we have seen a significant percentage increase, in absolute terms we still need to do more to grow those professions. We have plans in place to do that, but that is a slow task; it can, in some cases, take up to 10 or 12 years to become an experienced specialist in that field.

On those increases since 2010, the Government would argue that we put measures in place, but it is also important to recognise that the previous Labour Government were working on this as well, hence the pull-through; those radiologists and radiographers did not magically appear immediately after 2010. There were programmes in place before and after that, so it is right that we recognise the contribution of the Opposition when they were in Government.

Finally, the new clause also seeks to place a Minister or national leader in charge of that new cancer plan. My ministerial role includes responsibility for elective recovery and recovery from the pandemic—our plan to tackle those waiting lists. As the shadow Minister knows, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, who briefly sat on this Committee, had responsibility for cancer services specifically, as does the new Under-Secretary. Dame Cally Palmer is the national lead as the national cancer director at NHS England and NHS Improvement. She has a distinguished career as chief executive of the Royal Marsden Hospital in parallel. We are jointly responsible for the current cancer plan. It is therefore unnecessary to include that new duty when we already have those accountabilities.

I will move on briefly to new clause 64, which we are considering with new clause 57. It seeks to legislate for an additional duty on the Secretary of State to publish data on cancer waiting lists, cancer diagnoses and action being taken to reduce the number of patients waiting for cancer treatment in England. Again, I understand the intention behind the new clause. Cancer is one of the greatest challenges to people’s health, as we set out. I would like to highlight first the fact that the Government are already delivering on the request for monthly publication of cancer performance data. Ensuring transparency of data is a priority. Each month, we publish official statistics on waiting list data, including the number of patients who began cancer treatment and waited longer than 62 days for treatment. NHS England also publishes monthly management data on the number of people currently waiting longer than 62 days for diagnosis or treatment. The new clause calls for data that is very similar to what is already published, and we therefore consider that it would be duplicative.

Secondly, on the request to publish predictions—that is not something that is currently done. Doing so would likely result in unhelpful poor-quality assumptions or modelling that could lead to expectations or an understanding that is not reflected in the reality of the data that comes through. While we look at all data sources internally, it would not be in the best interests of scrutiny and, potentially, patients to publish poor-quality predictions with a limited confidence factor.

Thirdly, there is no evidence of need. Following the success of campaigns such as Help Us, Help You, we have seen the public seek medical attention for symptoms that might be cancer, while cancer referrals from GPs have been at record levels since March. At the same time, the NHS has been delivering high-quality and innovative solutions to improve cancer care and treatment. We have announced funding for elective recovery, including cancer services, of £2 billion this year and £8 billion over the next three years, which will increase activity and deliver millions more checks, scans, procedures and treatments. We will continue to publish and review the monthly official statistics to monitor progress.

Finally, on the request for the Secretary of State to publish a report every six months on the actions taken to reduce the number of patients awaiting cancer treatment, I should state that the NHS has already undertaken extensive work to reduce the number of patients waiting for treatment and to continue progress in delivering the long-term plan ambitions for cancer. We will publish the elective recovery delivery plan later this year, which will set out how the NHS will deliver increased elective capacity and how cancer patients will be prioritised for access.

Furthermore, the NHS cancer programme already regularly reports on progress through both NHSEI and DHSC governance structures, through publication of monthly data on cancer waiting times and through regular communications products. We would therefore argue that the new clause is duplicative. While I assure the Committee that we are taking urgent action to reduce cancer waiting lists, we consider the new clause to be unnecessary.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I am grateful for that answer, which reflects the current difference in public policy between the Government and the Opposition. At oral questions to the Health Secretary, I always ask and will continue to ask whether the Government’s position is that the current plans and status will be sufficient to meet the challenges and the backlog—we think they are not. While the system was overheated before the pandemic, it has been distressed by the last 18 months. We do not think that asking that system to meet both emergent and old problems will work. However, that is probably a point for oral questions and future debates, rather than this Public Bill Committee. On that basis, I will withdraw the clause.

As we are coming to the end of the debate, I might gently say to the Minister, on his point that the Government do not make predictions because they might be unhelpful in the future, that it feels as if, every time he goes on the news, the Health Secretary puts waiting lists up by another million in an extraordinary attempt to manage expectations. Was it 13 million last time? It just goes up and up. I do not think it is quite fair to say that Ministers do not do that—the Health Secretary, at least, certainly does. Nevertheless, that is no reason not to withdraw the clause, and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Steve Double.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 2 November at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.