Ministers confirm plans to scrap two-thirds of cancer targets by autumn

The government has confirmed that two-thirds of NHS England cancer targets will be scrapped by the autumn as it aims to bring cancer care “into the modern era”.

The new guidelines will see the 10 targets currently in place reduced to three – and the two-week wait target will be scrapped in favour of the Faster Diagnosis Standard.

Labour has accused Rishi Sunak of “moving the goalposts and cutting standards for patients” rather than cutting waiting times, which is one of his five pledges.

As it stands, 93% of people referred urgently by their GP with suspected cancer must be seen by a specialist within 14 days – although that target has not been achieved since early 2018.

The new Faster Diagnosis Standard was initially introduced in April 2021, and has been under “rigorous consultation”, according to the government.

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Cancer target scrapped in England

The aim is for 75% of patients to be told within 28 days of referral whether or not they have cancer, reducing anxiety for patients and speeding up treatment pathways.

However, since the new standard was introduced 16 months ago, the target has not once been met, according to research from the House of Commons library.

The new targets for NHS England cancer care are as follows:

• The 28-day Faster Diagnosis Standard, under which patients with suspected cancer referred by a GP should be diagnosed within 28 days;

• The 62-day referral to treatment to ensure patients who have been referred and diagnosed should start treatment within that time frame;

• The 31-day decision to treat – this means patients with a cancer diagnosis should have a decision made on their first or subsequent treatment and should start it within 31 days.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with Health Secretary Steve Barclay speaking to staff during a visit to Rivergreen Medical Centre in Nottingham
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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Steve Barclay speaking to staff during a visit to Rivergreen Medical Centre in Nottingham in June

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national NHS medical director, said: “The NHS is already catching more cancers at an earlier stage, when they are easier to treat than ever before and the Faster Diagnosis Standard will allow us to build on this excellent progress.

“The updated ambitions will mean the NHS can be even more focused on outcomes for patients, rather than just appointment times, and it’s yet another example of the NHS bringing cancer care into the modern era of care.”

Health minister Will Quince said the “biggest factor in people surviving cancer is the stage at which they are diagnosed”, and added: “We have listened to the advice from clinical experts and NHS England to reform cancer standards which will speed up diagnosis for patients.”

Last week, NHS England data revealed 261,006 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in June – up 13% year on year from 231,868 in June 2022.

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However, cancer wait times remain well below the government targets.

From October 2022 to June 2023, 418,000 people waited longer than the two-week period from referral to seeing a specialist, and in the same period, 623,000 people were still waiting for either a diagnosis or cancer to be ruled out 28 days after an urgent referral.

Oncologist Professor Pat Price, co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign and chairwoman of charity Radiotherapy UK, welcomed the “simplification” of the system, she said targets should be “much higher”.

“The only measure that will ‘move the dial’ is the development and implementation of a radical new plan backed up with smart investment in people and kit,” she said.

But Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, said it is “good news” for bowel cancer services and will “help NHS policymakers and the government to identify parts of the country that may need extra support”.

Labour 'relieved' with NHS plan
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Labour’s Wes Streeting was diagnosed with and treated for kidney cancer in 2021

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting – who has himself undergone NHS cancer treatment – blasted the government’s record on cancer care, saying patients are “left waiting dangerously long for diagnosis and treatment” which means that for some, “their treatment won’t start until it’s too late”.

He added: “Since Rishi Sunak became prime minister, hundreds of thousands of patients have been let down. Now he’s moving the goalposts and cutting standards for patients, when he should be cutting waiting times instead.

“Having been through treatment for kidney cancer, I know the importance of early diagnosis and fast treatment. With Labour, the NHS will be there for cancer patients when they need it, once again.”

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