Exclusive: Government hopes to clear cancer backlog 'within months' but won’t rule out more cancellations

The Health Secretary says he hopes the backlog in cancer care will be cleared “within months” but cannot rule out further treatments and operations being cancelled this winter.Speaking exclusively to ITV News, Matt Hancock said the number of people waiting longer than the 62-day NHS England target to begin treatment for cancer after an urgent GP referral had “increased substantially” since the coronavirus crisis began in March.When asked how big the NHS cancer backlog had become, Mr Hancock didn’t say, but Cancer Research UK estimates 2.4 million people were waiting for a cancer screening, further tests or cancer treatment at the end of May, as Covid-19 caused the biggest delays in cancer screening with a backlog of around 2.1 million people left waiting for breast, bowel or cervical screening. 

Cancer Research UK says during this time, 3,800 cancers would normally be diagnosed through screening.The Health Secretary insists, though, that the NHS is capable of dealing with the cancer backlog as winter approaches.“We've had to take action right across the NHS to make sure that we deal with Covid,” the Health Secretary told ITV News.

Matt Hancock speaking to Daniel Hewitt. Credit: ITV News

“It was very important when there were a lot of new cases of Covid that people weren't made more at risk of Covid because of treatments, especially for cancer, but now it's incredibly important for people to come forward.“The number of people who have been waiting for longer than the 62 days, which is the standard that we want to see, has increased substantially. But the good news is that since the peak that backlog has more or less halved. So we're working through the backlog.”Asked when the backlog would be cleared, Mr Hancock said he “very much hoped” it would happen “within a matter of months” but would not rule out more treatments, screenings or operations being cancelled."One of the things that as Health Secretary is that you don't use the word guarantee. What I can say, though, is that we are already on the path to recovering the situation in cancer, which as I say had to unfortunately stop.”The Health Secretary was speaking at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge where he was announcing an extra £50m for diagnostic centres of excellence which will develop artificial intelligence to diagnose diseases including cancer.The government says the funding will support the long-term response to Covid-19 and is part of its commitment to detect three quarters of cancers at an early stage by 2028.

In the short-term, Mr Hancock’s priority is on finding a coronavirus vaccine, and he says the search is heading in the right direction. 

"We don't rule out a vaccine coming on stream this year, but by no means is that a done deal. Next year is more likely."It’s a very difficult science, it's thankfully one that our scientists are up to, and each sign at the moment is going well and going in the right direction but we don't want to raise people's hopes too much."The Health Secretary also raised concerns of a growing number of so-called anti-vaccination campaigns opposed to a coronavirus vaccine.

"I have seen an increase in anti-vax messages and anti-test messages and these sorts of conspiracy theories, and they are wrong. We need to address them very directly. There's a programme of work on the way in government to make that happen.“It is critical that, should a vaccine come through, that people then have kind of have the confidence to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves and protect their community."Yet until a vaccine is found, social distancing and other restrictions are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, with Mr Hancock suggesting there would be no special measures put in place for the Christmas period.“There's a challenge over winter too, which is that we know that diseases spread more easily in the cold weather both because the actual biology of the disease that can survive more in the cold, but also because we know that outside is safer and people obviously spend more time indoors in winter. “So we're doing a huge amount of planning to make sure that the NHS is prepared and can cope to make sure that people can have as much freedom to enjoy Christmas, to enjoy winter, as possible."Asked about any exceptions over the festive period, for instance, to allow more people to see one another, the Health Secretary said: "Well, the danger of a rule like that is that it increases the spread of the disease. I mean, there are an awful lot of things I'd love to be able to do, but the risk of them is that we see an uptick in the disease. Hence we've had to take decisions that you wouldn't ever want to.”

He also defended the government over it’s latest U-turn on face coverings in schools."We're dealing with a crisis of that is entirely unprecedented. We're dealing with a disease that didn't even exist, as far as we know, before December last year, so we're taking decisions guided by the science on it.“I think what people would get really cross about is if a government refuses to change even if evidence came up that there was a better option."