One of the most worrying aspects of the Coronavirus pandemic is the impact on cancer care, with an estimated 100,000 people in the UK affected by the backlog in cancer services. Whilst essential cancer treatments have continued throughout the pandemic, it is clear that the pressures of Covid on our NHS have had a significant knock-on effect. I know from my own experience the devastation cancer causes to families, which is why the Government need a laser-like focus on ensuring that our cancer care services are supported to clear this backlog.
The stark reality is that our hospitals are under enormous pressure from seriously ill patients. We’ve seen the deeply concerning situation in London where a major incident has been declared due to the risk of NHS services being overwhelmed. Although currently, our hospitals here in South Yorkshire are in a better position than elsewhere, it is a reminder that the new variant of the virus is spreading rapidly around the country and will lead to increases in rates of hospitalisation and staff having to be redeployed to tackle Covid – which would only worsen the situation in cancer care. We can all play our part in saving lives and protecting our NHS by staying at home where possible and reducing unnecessary social contact.
It is estimated that it would take cancer services running at 120% capacity for two years to clear the backlog in cases. This simply cannot be achieved by pushing staff – many of whom are already exhausted after a year of almost ceaseless pressure – to work harder. There needs to be a determined intervention from the Government to restore services to pre-pandemic levels and prevent avoidable cancer deaths.
Although it is welcome that the ‘Cancer Recovery Taskforce’ has published its plan to address the backlog, the strategy for restoring services must be kept under constant review. Partly that involves ensuring our NHS Trusts and specialist cancer hospitals have the funding they need to work their way through the growing backlog – a ‘super boost’ for cancer services. However, additional resources alone won’t clear the backlog. We also need to look at how cancer treatment is delivered. That means ensuring that hospital trusts have access to the latest diagnostic equipment, to identify and detect cancer as early as possible.
It means scaling up the provision of Covid-secure treatments such as radiotherapy that can delivered with minimal contact between patients and healthcare staff and more cost effectively than higher-risk treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy, for some cancers. And it means encouraging friends and relatives – especially men who are often reluctant to get checked out – to visit their doctor if they have symptoms because early diagnosis and treatment saves lives.
Alongside clearing the cancer backlog there must be a renewed focus on health and wellbeing in the aftermath of the pandemic and tackling persistent health inequalities. Sadly, the reality is that people born in Barnsley will die earlier than their counterparts in more affluent parts of the country. Over the last year I’ve been holding the Government to account on their pledge to level-up the North of England. We usually see this in terms of economic regeneration, job creation and improving transport connectivity. Those are, of course, integral to my plan to build a stronger, greener and fairer regional economy; but we’ve also got to focus on levelling up the health of the population and tackling structural inequalities, so that where you grow up doesn’t determine where you end up – or how long you live.