'We shouldn't be putting people's lives at risk - it's totally avoidable': Cancer doctors speak of no-deal Brexit fear

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

Patient access to lifesaving cancer treatment will be jeopardised if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal next month, senior NHS doctors have told ITV News.

Oncologists, speaking out over their increasing anxieties about a no-deal scenario, have called on the government to provide urgent reassurance that materials crucial to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer will still reach Britain efficiently in the event of a hard Brexit.

Specialists are particularly concerned about any disruption to the delicate supply of medical radioisotopes - predominantly imported from the Netherlands, France and Belgium, and pivotal in detecting and curing various forms of the disease.

The radioactive material, used in an estimated 700,000 medical procedures every year in the UK, cannot be stockpiled due to its short lifespan and relies on fast access from reactor to hospital before it rapidly decays and becomes effectively useless.

“It really beggars belief that we got into this situation where we are leaving it to the last minute and people’s lives are going to depend on it,” Dr Clive Peedell, a lung and prostate cancer specialist based in Middlesbrough, said.

“If you’re going to treat cancer patients, you need to plan treatments and if we can’t even get the diagnosis done properly, there is a real worry that cancer patients are going to be put at risk.”

Radioisotopes are not manufactured in the UK, relying predominately on the EU. Credit: ITV News

Dr Jeanette Dickson, the Vice President for Clinical Oncology at the Royal College of Radiologists, stressed that she did not want to alarm people but admitted any disruption in supply could force doctors to alter treatment plans or even start prioritising certain patients.

“If there is a lot of hold up at ports or any delay in timing, it reduces the activity of radioactive isotopes and we then get fewer, reducing the number of tests we can do and reducing the number of patients we can treat - almost from day one.

“I hope we have an efficient way of moving large amounts of very time-dependent drugs after March 29. But unless it’s in place on March 30, I’m not convinced there will not be some requirement for us as doctors to prioritise patients, change treatments or move patients to another substitution of treatment which is all going to cause anxiety for patients and stress for the teams looking after them.”

She highlighted those being treated for prostate or cervical cancer who require a time-dependent radiotherapy treatment called brachytherapy as a particular high-risk group of concern.

Dr Dickson, who has been involved in ongoing discussions with the government for 18 months over its plans to safeguard supply chains and care, said she had received assurances that ministers had drawn up contingency plans and fully comprehended the “sensitive nature” of radioisotopes.

Asked what those plans entail, she replied: “They haven’t shared those plans with us so all we can say is that we have been assured they are in place but we don’t know what those plans look like.”

She added: “I think the government understands there is a risk but I’m not convinced they will be able to give us a solution in the timeframe we want to know.”

Dr Jeanette Dickson, a senior oncologist. Credit: ITV News

Responding to the concerns, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told ITV News that he has ordered planes to be on standby to deliver time-sensitive supplies - such as medical radioisotopes - if lorries are held up.

"There are isotopes that are needed and that can't be stockpiled and we are bringing those in by air - those flights are arranged in case we need them," he said.

"I'm confident if everybody does what they need to do - that includes resolving those transport issues - there will be that unhindered supply that everybody wants to see."

Dr Peedell claimed his profession felt they had “been left in the dark” about the preparations, and colleagues were now readying themselves for “difficult conversations” with patients.

“It’s clearly a great concern especially when it comes to cancer but you could argue with any serious illness you discuss with patients where you have to say, ‘Look we might not be able to give you optimum standard of care’.

“That greatly worries us as professional people because that’s what you want to do - give the best possible treatment and treat people as you would do your own family and if you can’t do that, that’s clearly going to cause a lot of distress and worry and it’s not good for patients or staff.”

Both Peedell and Dickson said while the short-term impact was the immediate worry, they were also concerned about the long-term implications of leaving Euratom - the body regulating the nuclear industry across Europe - as well as EU-funded clinical trials, crucial to future treatments for childhood cancers.

Denying that his comments could be perceived as scaremongering, Dr Peedell, an unapologetically vocal Remainer, argued the debate over what happens next has moved well beyond the Remain-Leave divide.

“Just making sure we don’t get a no-deal - anything else please - is what I’d be stressing to them. I know that’s what they want to do but they are leaving it extremely late and it’s causing massive uncertainty in the medical profession, pharmaceutical industry - all these key areas that are going to be hugely impacted.

“We shouldn’t be putting people’s lives at risk when it’s totally avoidable - this is 100% avoidable and it doesn’t seem to the case at the moment that they are trying to stop it.”

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