When the Conservatives were re-elected in 2019, it was on a manifesto that mentioned cancer in only two specific commitments: the expansion of the Cancer Drugs Fund and the rollout of cancer diagnostic machines across 78 hospital trusts. And yet, at the beginning of February, the Government used World Cancer Day to declare war on cancer, announcing a sweeping consultation for a new 10 Year Cancer Plan for England, designed to “radically improve” outcomes for cancer patients.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on cancer diagnosis and care, so, despite the surprise nature of the announcement, it’s hard to oppose the Government’s decision to intervene. What isn’t clear yet is the extent to which this will be a wholesale reform backed by serious funding commitments, or a rehash of existing policies in the 2019 NHS Long Term Plan and the 2015 Cancer Strategy for England.
The announcement shows the Government’s intention of taking the reins on cancer policy, and making it political. Following months of political unrest and serious concerns about the elective care backlog, this allows the Government to set its long-term intentions. By making cancer a political priority, the Government and NHS can be held to account on the impact of reform, ensuring delivery against commitments. This is likely to be central to the purpose of the Cancer Plan and will help to give momentum to a programme of change.
It is essential that funding is adequate to achieve targets at an extremely challenging time. Patient groups, who have witnessed years of rhetoric yet insufficient progress, are cautiously optimistic, rightly concerned that years of underinvestment and understaffing will mean that however great the commitments are, the resource to achieve them will not match.
We have also witnessed this week The Treasury being more muscular on making stipulations attached to funding commitments. The tense stand-off with Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) over the Elective Recovery Plan may indicate what’s to come with the Cancer Plan, with the Treasury not keen to loosen the purse strings for wooly ambitions.
Whether the Plan, when published, is a total reset or momentum for existing policy in a new format, the potential for real change in the diagnosis, management and treatment of cancers is certainly closer.