NHS set to miss key targets, including on cancer, MPs say in damning report

'Waiting times for cancer treatment are especially worrying,' the report says. Credit: PA

The NHS in England will miss key targets for recovery of the health service, including treating people for cancer, MPs have said in a damning report.

The cross-party Public Accounts Committee said the plan for tackling Covid backlogs, set out by NHS England and the Government last year, was already “falling short” and was based on “over-optimistic” assumptions about low levels of Covid and minimal pressure on the health service this winter.

The report said: “NHS England’s three-year recovery programme for elective and cancer care is very ambitious, relies on innovative but relatively untested approaches, and is already falling short of expectations in its first year.

“Waiting times for cancer treatment are especially worrying. In the first five months of the recovery period the proportion of people receiving timely cancer treatment has decreased.

“Only 62% of cancer patients were treated within 62 days of their urgent referral by a GP, when performance should be 85%.

“It is now clear that the target to reduce the number of people waiting for more than 62 days following an urgent GP referral to the pre-pandemic level will not be met by March 2023.

“It is also clear that, for elective care, the planned route to increasing activity to 129% of pre-pandemic levels by 2024/25 is unachievable.”

The report said that being so “off track” means more patients are left “waiting too long”, and added that cancer waiting times “are at their worst recorded level”.

It also criticised a “dearth of advance planning” to ensure the NHS has enough staff and enough capacity for extra diagnostic tests and treatments – much of which was “already needed before the Covid-19 pandemic”.

MPs said that, for the recovery plan to succeed, the capacity of adult social care must improve so people can be discharged from hospital in a timely way.

In addition, there needs to be more clarity on how large the workforce needs to be and “how long it will take to reach these levels through sufficient domestic training”.

NHS England has committed to publishing an NHS workforce plan by April 2023.

Labour MP Dame Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Despite a significant cash injection meant to begin to help the recovery from the pandemic, the NHS is in full-blown crisis and all the metrics are going in the wrong direction.

“On the evidence we have received the NHS will not achieve the targets in its recovery plan, and that means health, longevity and quality of life indicators will continue to go backwards for the people of this country.

“That is simply shameful, and totally unacceptable in a nation as wealthy as ours.”

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Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders are working extremely hard to tackle the backlogs and have made remarkable progress towards eliminating 78-week waits by April given the mounting pressures they face.

“However, a very tough winter, the impact of industrial action and vast workforce shortages are just some of the challenges threatening to undermine these efforts.

“The government opening talks with all striking unions will be key to resolving pay disputes and averting more strikes.

“The national workforce plan, which needs to be fully funded by the government, should also go some way to address staff shortages and equip the NHS with the resources it needs.”

Sir James Mackey, national director of elective recovery at NHS England, said there were “a number of factual errors” in the materials produced by MPs.

He added: “The milestones set out in the plan, published just over a year ago, were based on widely shared and agreed assumptions about low prevalence of Covid.

“Even though there have been much higher levels of Covid, NHS staff hit the first milestone, virtually eliminating two-year waits, and have made significant progress on the second by cutting the number of 18-month waits by over a quarter in the last month – facts that have been ignored in this release.

“On cancer, thanks to the efforts of the NHS, record numbers are coming forward for checks, allowing staff to do the clinically correct thing by prioritising the most urgent cases – the health service cannot help those who do not come forward.

“As ever, we need the public to know that the NHS is there for them and people should continue to come forward for the care they need if they have health concerns.”

Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said: “The public has lost all faith in the Conservative Government and can now see that its targets simply aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said the NHS “has already made strong progress in tackling the Covid backlogs”, adding: “We are working to reduce the 62-day cancer backlog – which has fallen 9% since peaking in 2020 – but we know there is more to do.

“We have opened 92 community diagnostic centres that have delivered over three million tests, scans and checks to detect cancer and other conditions as early as possible, with 19 more opening this year.”

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