The following was published in the Health Service Journal (HSJ) today:

Government is considering setting a tougher cancer diagnostic target as part of its declared ‘war on cancer’, HSJ  has been told.

Sajid Javid announced a “war on cancer” and launched a call for evidence on what could be done to improve services in February.

HSJ understands one of the measures being considered is increasing the existing target for cancer diagnosis, set in the 2019 NHS long-term plan.

The current target committed the service to diagnosing 75 per cent of cancers at stages one and two by 2028.

At present, performance is around 54 per cent and late stage diagnosis is a key factor behind the UK’s poor performance on cancer mortality, compared with other wealthy nations.

It is not known what the new percentage might be but there is some scepticism over whether, particularly following the pandemic, the NHS could hit the existing target, not to mention a tougher one.

Cancer Research UK has asked for government, as part of the latest consultation, to set a target of at most 20 per cent diagnosed at stage three and four – effectively, 80 per cent or more at stages one and two – by 2032.

The Royal College of Radiologists pointed out in February that there was a shortfall of nearly 2,000 consultant radiologists and 20 per cent fewer consultant oncologists to meet the existing gaps.

Consultation on Mr Javid’s 10-year plan ended at the start of April. At the launch, the Department of Health and Social Care promised a “renewed focus on innovative cancer treatment and early diagnosis”.

Asked about the issue, NHS England made no comment on the resource and delivery implications of increasing the diagnostics target.

The DHSC said it would not comment before the formal launch of the cancer strategy in the summer, currently expected at the start of July.

On 25 April health minister Edward Argar said the government would spend an extra £50m to “further expand the cancer and diagnostics workforce”.

Cancer performance data shows the service under considerable pressure, with data released yesterday showing a performance of 67.4 per cent against the target of treatment within two months of urgent referral by a GP. The target is 85 per cent and March’s figure (the latest) is an improvement from the record low of 61.8 per cent in January this year.

Last year, NHSE had to push back its target to return the cancer long waiters backlog to pre-pandemic levels by March this year. The target is now March 2023.

The backlog of patients waiting longer than 62 days from an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer grew to 21,823 in the most recent data, the same level seen in March 2020 and August 2021.