I know many Telegraph readers are familiar with Jon Chapple’s story because you have kindly helped him to crowdfund over £100,000 for revolutionary cancer treatment in Germany. But for those who aren’t, Jon, 34, a recently married journalist-turned-public relations executive, had his diagnosis of incurable bowel cancer delayed because the NHS turned into a “Covid-only service” during the pandemic.
If it isn’t bad enough that Jon says he had years of “wrong diagnoses”, the lockdowns resulted in delayed appointments and missed opportunities to deal with the disease. Ultimately, his cancer metastasised. And barring a miracle in Germany, he is now facing a death sentence.
This type of story is sadly becoming all too familiar. In February, mum of two Katie Pritchard, 37, was given months to live after bungling medics told her her cervical cancer symptoms may have been the side-effects of the Covid jab.
And earlier this month, we also learnt of the case of Telegraph reader Penelope Simpson, who was told by an NHS doctor during the pandemic that she should have breast cancer surgery within a fortnight – but that the earliest date they could arrange an operation was six months away. Like many patients who have paid their taxes and national insurance contributions for years, she was forced to go private.
Many assumed the situation would rapidly improve once the last lockdown was lifted, but this week brought the unwelcome news that things are getting worse, not better. A report by the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) showed cancer diagnosis and treatment is in crisis, and stands “on the brink of disaster” according to some charities, with patients suffering deadly delays.
The pandemic lockdowns undoubtedly made things worse, as experts like the oncologist Prof Karol Sikora warned at the time, only to be vilified for it. But the rot set in well before March 2020.
The NHS has not met a target for 85 per cent of cancer patients to start treatment within two months since 2015, with the latest monthly figures for March showing just 63.5 per cent of cases seen within this time frame. The RCR report also shows that we do not have nearly enough staff to treat cancer patients.
Thus, even if the Government is technically correct to say that there are more doctors now than there were in 2010, it still hasn’t recruited enough to keep up with demand, especially since the UK population is estimated to have grown by 4.3 million (6.9 per cent) between 2010 and 2020.
A poll of all 60 directors of the UK’s cancer centres found that 95 per cent now believe staff shortages are causing delays, after the RCR report warned that Britain has a 15 per cent shortfall of clinical oncologists which is expected to reach 25 per cent by 2027.
Bearing in mind that every four-week delay in cancer treatment could increase the risk of death by around 10 per cent, we now have a national health service that seems all too happy to play roulette with cancer patients’ lives. And with the Tories having apparently delayed the publication of a workforce strategy to tackle a forecast shortfall of more than half a million staff overall, the figures couldn’t be more stark.
Labour claims that 420,000 more cancer patients are missing the target for follow-up appointments than in 2010, with almost 35,000 more patients a month waiting longer than two weeks for a cancer hospital appointment since the Conservatives came to power. In May 2010, some 3,135 patients had been waiting to see a hospital cancer specialist for more than a fortnight.
Moreover, staff shortages presumably mean that the proportion of more expensive locum staff increases, draining precious resources.
It all raises the question: where the hell is all the new NHS funding going? While Rishi Sunak should be commended for planning another £1 billion investment to train doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists over the next few years, he must find new ways of making sure the taxpayer’s hard-earned money doesn’t go to waste.
For if such a large proportion of patients are waiting longer than necessary to start chemotherapy or radiotherapy, while some doctors are having to make “difficult decisions” about who to prioritise, then we are now faced with the unprecedented cancer catastrophe in this country that Prof Sikora and others correctly predicted three years ago.
Indeed, prostate radiotherapy patients in some areas are already facing a three-month minimum wait to receive treatment, while some breast cancer patients are waiting seven to eight weeks.
The irony in all this is that we are a leading country in cancer research. The British people have contributed directly, through donations in life and their wills in death, to research that has helped the world fight cancer and improve survival rates. But what use is all that expert research and innovation if patients are faced with agonising waits that only serve to spread cancers rather than cure them? Meanwhile, doctors and nurses are having to wade through crippling NHS bureaucracy just to complete basic tasks.
This week, Dr Tom Roques, vice-president of the RCR, was speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme about its report when he revealed how the NHS’s clunky IT system overcomplicates what he is doing. “I sit in clinic and I have to put in six or seven passwords every time I see one patient to get into all the different systems. IT makes my life more complicated, whereas my phone makes my life easier,” he said. “It takes a bit longer to see people now than it used to.” It rather makes a mockery of NHS Digital.
Yet that is the story of our country now: a nation with fantastic private initiatives, conducted by brilliant minds, but destroyed by big government that, particularly when it comes to healthcare, has continually sought to pass the buck on NHS reform to a series of arm’s-length bodies that seem to achieve very little beyond paying their useless managers too much taxpayer cash.
That we even have a quango named “NHS Improvement” frankly feels like an insult to patients.
So what now for Britain’s cancer patients? It used to be said that you shouldn’t pursue private healthcare if you’ve had a diagnosis as the best and latest equipment was only widely available in NHS hospitals. We once thought that the British state was determined to provide first-class cancer care. No more.
Now, many patients faced with the prospect of the NHS leaving their cancer growing inside them for weeks on end while they await treatment are having to beg and borrow just to survive. Those who cannot afford it, like Jon Chapple, are being forced to rely on the generosity of strangers.
For the rest, all that’s left is an anxious wait, with hope of recovery fading with every passing day. They deserve so much better.