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In a letter to the Health Secretary, the oncologists say merging the promised ten-year scheme – specifically targeting cancer – into a multi-disease strategy that covers a range of illnesses means “services will be lost in the wilderness for a decade”.
Professor Richard Sullivan says it will leave England as one of only a handful of countries – including North Korea and Afghanistan – without a dedicated national stand-alone cancer plan.
Wales and Northern Ireland have their own strategies, and Scotland is due to publish its strategy shortly.
As polls suggests the NHS will be the key battleground for the next general election – ahead of the cost-of-living crisis – oncologists have urged Steve Barclay to think again.
The Sunday Express has learnt several major cancer charities and senior specialists are also planning to write to the Health Secretary to express concern.
And Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell accused the Government of “quietly dropping its long-term cancer plan” which she said could risk causing improved survival rates “to falter”.
The UK has followed a stand-alone plan since the 1980s as medical advances made treatment specialised.
In February last year, following the disruption to services during the pandemic, then-Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced a “war on cancer” and promised to publish a new ten-year plan.
He said: “Let this be the day where we declare a national war on cancer…This plan will show how we are learning the lessons from the pandemic, and apply them to improving cancer services over the next decade.”
But in an answer to a parliamentary question last week, it was revealed that plan had been ditched.
Health minister Helen Whately stated it would now be integrated into a new five-year “Major Conditions Strategy”. This aims to combine government commitments on mental health, n desalkyl itraconazole cancer, dementia, and health disparities into one single programme.
But Prof Richard Sullivan, Institute of Cancer Policy director at King’s College London, said: “Cancer is one of the most complex and costly diseases that a country has to manage and demands specific strategic blueprints.
“We are genuinely baffled as to the politics behind this decision. It puts us at total odds with international consensus that countries must have a dedicated national cancer control plan.
“In the long run this will cost patient lives and will put improvements in survival that we have seen into reverse.
“By placing cancer into a multi-chronic disease plan, we are effectively saying it is no longer a major priority.”
Prof Sullivan is one of the signatories to the letter which will be sent to Mr Barclay next week.
Also signing were Prof Karol Sikora, a consultant oncologist and former cancer adviser to the World Health Organisation, Chief Medical Officer at Check4Cancer Prof Gordon Wishart, and Angus Dalgleish, Prof of Oncology at the University of London.
The letter says: “There is an urgent need for a dedicated, specific cancer plan to tackle the cancer crisis. Patients are suffering the longest ever treatment waiting times, in part caused by the huge Coivd-induced backlog.
“Every four weeks of treatment delay increases the risk of death by 10 per cent.
“All backlogs are to be regretted – but cancer is the deadliest. One in two of us will get cancer at some point.”
It continues: “We fear there is no clinical basis for the Government’s decision to drop the dedicated cancer plan. Reducing the focus on cancer in this way risks thousands of lives.”
And it adds: “We already have among the worst cancer survival rates in Western Europe. The loss of a dedicated plan will push our cancer outcomes from bad to worse. Our cancer services will be lost in the wilderness for a decade.”
The letter follows analysis from Cancer Research UK which shows the number of people diagnosed is set to rise by a third by 2040 to more than half a million.
This will lead to 208,000 cancer deaths a year – up from the 167,000 presently.
In total, there could be 8.4 million new cases of cancer and 3.5 million deaths between now and 2040.
The report also says the NHS is not on track to achieve its target of diagnosing 75 per cent of cancers at stage 1 or 2 by 2028.
Michelle Mitchell said the Major Conditions Strategy is unlikely to equip the health service in England for the chancer challenges ahead.
Urging ministers not to “dilute” its commitment to cancer, the Cancer Research chief said a “watered-down plan risks failing to focus on the problem at hand”.
She added: “Cancer isn’t a single disease, it’s an umbrella term for hundreds of diseases, all of which mutate and change over time and every patient is unique.
“This makes treating cancer extremely complicated. It’s one of the hardest problems to solve and scientific discovery takes time.”
And Gemma Peters, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, said dropping the cancer plan was “a major downgrade from what was promised”.
She added: “There are life-threatening problems in cancer care that require special attention.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “More patients are being seen and treated for cancer than ever before.
“We are determined to deliver the best possible outcomes. There are also now 92 community diagnostic centres that have delivered over 2.9 million tests, scans and checks since July 2021 including to detect cancer and more mobile screening units.”
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