Boris Johnson has been accused of a “shameful spinning” of key pledges on cancer care in an attempt to distract from the NHS’s record 6 million-strong backlog of people on waiting lists.
The prime minister used a visit to a cancer centre in Kent to unveil plans for what were portrayed as two new care standards that would ensure people in England with the disease get diagnosed more quickly.
But opposition parties condemned the move as a “pathetic rehashing of old pledges” and a cynical attempt to try to persuade the media to reduce their focus on a row between the government and NHS chiefs over how quickly hospitals can be expected to treat the hundreds of thousands of patients who have been waiting between one and two years for surgery.
The spat overshadowed and forced the postponement of Monday’s launch of the long-awaited “elective recovery plan”, which was due to set out the government’s plans to tackle the backlog. NHS England is now expected to finally publish the plan – which was originally due in early December – on Tuesday.
However, it quickly emerged that Johnson’s pledge that 75% of people who develop cancer will be diagnosed early by 2028 matched an objective first announced by NHS England in its long-term plan in January 2019, when Theresa May was still in Downing Street.
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, pointed out that a second promise – that 75% of suspected cancer patients will be told if they have the disease or not within 28 days of being urgently referred by a GP – was an NHS standard that was already in place.
“This is an existing target that was introduced in April and has never been met,” Streeting said. NHS England figures covering April to November 2021 show the 75% target was not met during those eight months, and that in November just 71.3% of people displaying potential symptoms of cancer were told within 28 days that they had or did not have it.
Johnson also said that by March next year the NHS would have reduced the backlog of cancer patients who have been waiting more than two months for cancer treatment to pre-pandemic levels.
But in a Commons debate on the elective recovery plan, Streeting told MPs that the NHS had pledged to give cancer patients their “first definitive treatment” within 62 days back in late 2009, when Labour was in power. The target had not been hit since 2015, he said, adding: “Isn’t this another example of the Conservatives lowering standards for patients because they consistently fail to meet them?”
Streeting said: “The prime minister announced what he called two ‘tough new cancer targets.’ One is a reannouncement and the other is actually weaker than the existing target. The Conservatives are lowering standards for patients because they failed to meet them.”
Macmillan Cancer Support also noted that the claimed new target was nothing of the sort. “It’s welcome to see a focus on clearing the backlog of people waiting more than two months to start cancer treatment, but this is a target that’s been promised previously and repeatedly missed,” said Eve Byrne, the charity’s director of advocacy.
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, accused Johnson of playing politics with cancer. About 360,000 Britons a year are diagnosed with cancer, and it kills 155,000.
“This pathetic rehashing of old pledges for the unprecedented challenge we face is an insult to the millions of frightened cancer patients and their families,” Cooper said. “Johnson needs to understand that there are lives on the line right now – and that’s bigger than saving his job. Spinning something as vital as how quickly someone is diagnosed with cancer is shameful. Cancer is a terrible disease, not a PR opportunity for a desperate and embattled prime minister.”
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said that for years cancer patients had not been getting care they are supposedly entitled to within set timeframes.
“We’re happy to hear the prime minister is doubling down on cancer targets. But our current targets have been missed for years, and getting back to pre-pandemic levels simply isn’t good enough,” she said.
Mitchell urged Sajid Javid, the health secretary, to make addressing what she called major shortages in the cancer workforce that were hampering the NHS’s ability to diagnose and treat people quickly the top priority of his newly declared “war on cancer”.
The elective recovery plan will commit hospitals to make treatment of the 307,000 patients who have been waiting for a year and 18,600 who have been forced to wait two years a priority. They will also be expected to give 10% more patients elective care – mainly surgery such as joint replacements and cataract removals – in 2022-23 than they did before Covid struck in March 2020.
Doctors’ leaders have said the backlog-busting plan will falter unless it is accompanied by a strategy to end the endemic understaffing across the NHS. “Simply put, any promises or unrealistic targets for returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity will fall flat without the staff to do the work”, said Dr Vishal Sharma, the chair of the British Medical Association’s consultants committee.
Dr Dolin Bhagawati, the vice-chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, said: “The NHS is broken through years of underspend even before Covid hit. Any plan that does not provide realistically for staff recruitment and retention is simply worthless and not worth the paper it’s printed on. Talking about putting an MRI scanner in a novel place, for example, may grab headlines but frankly is a chocolate fireguard in front of an inferno.”