The lung cancers of up to 9,000 people could be caught sooner or prevented under a new screening programme set to be rolled out nationally.
The scheme, which is expected cost £270 million annually once fully established and will use patients’ GP records for those aged 55 to 74 to identify current or former smokers, could provide almost one million scans and earlier treatment.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggests the scheme could provide “a lifeline to thousands of families across the country”.
Under the programme, backed by a recommendation from the UK National Screening Committee, patients will have their risk of cancer assessed based on their smoking history and other factors – and those considered high risk will be invited for specialist scans every two years.
It is estimated the rollout will mean 325,000 people will be newly eligible for a first scan each year with 992,000 scans expected per year in total.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the first phase of the scheme will reach 40% of the eligible population by March 2025, with the aim of 100% coverage by March 2030 following the rollout.
The rollout comes after a successful earlier phase which saw approximately 70% of the screenings take place in mobile units parked in convenient sites such as supermarket car parks.
This helped ensure easy access and focused on more deprived areas where people are four times more likely to smoke.
The first phase of the targeted lung health check scheme by NHS England resulted in more than 2,000 people being detected as having cancer, while 76% were found at an earlier stage compared to 29% in 2019 outside of the programme.
In total, during the initial phase almost 900,000 people were invited for checks, 375,000 risk assessments made and 200,000 scans were carried out.
Mr Sunak said: “And while we focus on cutting waiting lists in the short term, we must also look to tackle some of the long-term challenging facing the NHS, including lung cancer which costs 35,000 lives every year.
“Rolling out screening to high-risk 55 to 74-year-olds will save lives by detecting up to 9,000 lung cancers a year at an early stage.
“The NHS has treated record numbers of cancer patients over the last two years, with cancer being diagnosed at an earlier stage more often and survival rates improving across almost all types of cancer.”
Smoking causes 72% of lung cancers, around 35,000 people die and 48,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer each year.
It has one of the lowest survival rates of all cancers, which is largely attributed to lung cancer being diagnosed at a late stage when treatment is much less likely to be effective.
Treating cancer early improves people’s chance of survival – with 60% of people currently surviving stage one cancer for five years or more and 4% at stage four.
More radiographers are to be appointed.
Anyone assessed as being at high risk of lung cancer will be referred to have a low dose Computed Tomography (LDCT) scan, with a diagnosis and treatment to follow if needed.
Anyone whose scans are negative will be reinvited for further scans every 24 months, until they pass the upper age limit.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Through our screening programme we are now seeing more diagnoses at stage 1 and stage 2 in the most deprived communities which is both a positive step and a practical example of how we are reducing health inequalities.
“Rolling this out further will prolong lives by catching cancer earlier and reducing the levels of treatment required not just benefiting the patient but others waiting for treatment.”
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “Identifying lung cancer early saves lives, and the expansion of the NHS’s targeted lung health check programme is another landmark step forward in our drive to find and treat more people living with this devastating disease at the earliest stage.
“The NHS lung trucks programme is already delivering life-changing results, with people living in the most deprived areas now more likely to be diagnosed at an earlier stage, giving them a better chance of successful treatment.
Paula Chadwick, chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, welcomed the move as screening “allows us to get ahead of this awful disease for the first time, catching it at the earliest opportunity – often before symptoms even start – and treating it with an aim to cure.”
But Labour accused the government of “disarming” the health service.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Every year since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, more cancer patients have waited longer than is safe to see a specialist.
“We need a war on cancer, but the Conservatives have spent a decade disarming the NHS.
“The mission of the next Labour government will be to make the NHS fit for the future, so it’s there for cancer patients when they need it.”
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...