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The NHS has “foot on the gas” to meet its key cancer target, MPs said

The NHS has “a job to do” to meet a key cancer target by March but has its “foot on the gas”, a health chief has said.

In February, NHS England said the number of people waiting more than 62 days from an urgent cancer referral to start treatment should return to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023.

Currently, just 61.7% of people (the previous average for 2022/23) receive cancer treatment within 62 days, compared to 77.2% before the pandemic.

Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director at NHS England, said the numbers were going in the right direction but acknowledged there was still some way to go.

She told MPs on the Health and Welfare Committee: “We are absolutely going in the right direction in terms of reducing the 62-day cancer residue.

“So the backlog has reduced from a high of around 36,000 to just under 31,000. Before the pandemic, it was just over 14,000. So we have a job to do, but we have gas.”

She said it was important to put the numbers in context, explaining that around 6% of those who are behind will have cancer, but the majority will not.

However, she acknowledged that any delay could be worrying for patients.

She said: “When you’re a patient, any waiting time makes you understandably anxious. So our job is to make sure we get patients through as quickly and efficiently as possible, whether they have cancer or not.”

During the session, convinced of how confident she is that the March 2023 target will be met, Dame Cally said: “We are working really hard to achieve this target.”

She said that since August there has been a “very significant drop” in people who waited between 29 and 62 days and those who wait over 62 days.

She added: “So we have very concrete plans. Everything is going in the right direction.”

The latest data from NHS England, released earlier this month, showed that when it came to cancer, the proportion of patients who saw a specialist within two weeks of being urgently referred by their GP fell to its lowest level on record of records had dropped.

About 251,977 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in September, up from 255,055 in the previous month but the highest number recorded in September.

However, only 72.6% of patients in England had a first consultation within two weeks that month, while the target of 93% was the worst performance on record.

Dame Cally told the committee she was unable to say whether the Government would come up with a 10-year cancer plan but said the health service was already implementing its long-term NHS plan.

In February, then Health and Welfare Secretary Sajid Javid launched a call for evidence to back a 10-year cancer plan for England.

When asked if she thought there needed to be a 10-year plan for cancer, Dame Cally said, “I think there needs to be sustained investment and cancer prioritized, yes.”

Asked if she was getting instructions from ministers that a 10-year plan would be presented, she said: “At this point I can’t answer that. I mean I think there has obviously been a recent change of secretary of state and what I do know is that there is an ongoing interest in transforming cancer services with investment behind it which I am very grateful for what we are doing with the long term plan .

Professor Peter Johnson, National Clinical Director for Cancer at NHS England, told MPs during Wednesday’s hearing: “I think it’s important to have a cancer plan and we have a cancer plan. Whether it needs to be refreshed at this point is, in my opinion, more a matter for the government than for us.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said it would release more information on the 10-year cancer plan “in due course”.

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