Helen Whately – 2022 Speech on Cancer Services

The speech made by Helen Whately, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, in the House of Commons on 8 December 2022.

I very much thank my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) for raising the Select Committee’s report on cancer today. I know that he is passionate about this issue both as a former cancer Minister and for the personal reasons that he mentioned, as do I. The Committee’s 12th report makes valuable recommendations, and I am grateful to it for all its hard work. I assure him and hon. Members that we are working night and day, together with our colleagues in the NHS, on three priorities for cancer in particular. They are: to recover from the backlog caused by the pandemic; to get better at early diagnosis and treatment, using the tools and technologies that we have; and to invest in research and innovation, because we know that advances in such things as genomics and artificial intelligence have the potential to transform our experience of cancer as a society.

This is my first opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, where I know he will do an excellent job, bringing his expertise as well as his passion on the subject to bear. I also welcome the focus that he will bring to the Committee on cancer and prevention, as he mentioned in his remarks. I am truly sorry that he has lost members of his family to cancer, including, as he said, his father. He rightly said that cancer affects pretty much everyone in our country in one way or another.

My hon. Friend talked about some of the challenges that we and our NHS face in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. In his time as cancer Minister, he was absolutely right to focus on early diagnosis, because we know that that makes such a difference. As he said, he set the 75% ambition for early diagnosis to be achieved by 2028, and the NHS is indeed working towards that at the moment. He talked about wanting to see the plan for achieving that ambition—I say “ambition” because, as he will know, it was intentionally set as a stretching target—and about the importance of us having the capacity to treat cancer. I think that is currently higher than it was before the pandemic, but I certainly see the need to expand it further.

My hon. Friend talked about the importance of surgical hubs. We have 89 of them, but more are planned, with £1.5 billion of capital funding recently approved for their expansion and future new hubs. He rightly talked about the importance of cancer research and the alignment of that with cancer treatment and cancer services. He also talked about the significance of health disparities and the prevalence of risk factors such as higher smoking and obesity rates in more deprived communities. I will address some of those points during my speech.

The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) spoke in particular about radiotherapy as well as giving a broader perspective. As he said, we met the other day together with Professor Pryce, and he raised his concerns with me about the use of radiotherapy, the impact of tariffs, the potential for better use of radiotherapy machines, staff, and several other points in the plan. It is too soon to give him the quality of answers that I would like on those points, but I am looking into exactly what he raised and will get back to him and those others we met as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup)—I have huge respect for her, including the work that she did as a Health Minister and the expertise she brings to the debate—is absolutely right about the importance of community diagnostic centres. We are rolling them out around the country, with 19 more just announced, increasing our capacity to diagnose cancers promptly. She also spoke about workforce pressures. I am sure she will know that the 2017 cancer workforce plan was delivered and, in fact, exceeded by over 200 additional staff. Since then, Health Education England has received additional funding of £50 million for the cancer workforce in the last financial year and this one.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should continue to focus on ensuring that we are training, supporting and retaining the cancer workforce that we need. That is so important to achieving our ambitions in cancer as well as the wider NHS workforce. Indeed, many of those who work in the NHS will be looking after patients with cancer, not just those who might have a specific cancer workforce label. I am sure she will know that we are well on our way to achieving our ambition of 50,000 more nurses in the NHS, with over 29,000 more at the moment.

My hon. Friend also spoke about cancer equipment. For instance, since 2016, £160 million of capital investment has been invested in radiotherapy equipment. I will take away her call for an equipment audit. She also importantly talked about obesity and alcohol as risk factors, although I appreciated that she said we should focus on alcohol reduction after the festive season. I thank her for allowing us to enjoy a drink over Christmas.

Grahame Morris

I am amazed that figures are not to hand on how many radiotherapy machines are more than 10 years old. Is it unreasonable to expect that NHS England would have an ongoing audit to identify which machines need replacing on a planned basis? Will that be addressed?

Helen Whately

There will be huge numbers of figures on things that NHS England will be monitoring. I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash that I am very happy to look at her specific suggestion, on the extent to which the data already exists or whether we should be collecting it. That is part of what I will be looking into when I follow up on that.

We heard from the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who brings really valuable experience to this topic. She said that she is a former oncology pharmacist and, if I heard her right, that she also volunteers as a pharmacist in her local hospital. That is hugely welcome experience to bring to the debate. I am very happy to speak to her more about some of the challenges she raised. I will follow up after the debate to see if we can get that in our diaries.

The hon. Lady pointed out that we are not achieving our targets on treatment rates, which is absolutely true, but she also spoke about cancer referrals. On that point, I want to share some good news. More people than ever before are being referred to hospitals by their GPs to see if they have cancer. The latest data for October this year, published only this morning, shows that almost 250,000 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England, which is up about 109% on the levels in October 2019. It is 10,000 more than in October last year and over 35,000 more than in October 2020. That is thanks to the hard work of GPs, to the 91 community diagnostic centres which have carried out more than 2 million additional scans, tests and checks already, and to all the people who have come forward and got themselves checked. We know it is not always easy if you are worried that you might have something that could be cancer. We are working hard to encourage people to come forward if they are worried, so that we can improve early diagnosis. That is why we are working to raise awareness with campaigns such as “Help us, Help you” alongside targeting case-finding efforts such as targeted lung health checks. Such initiatives are successfully countering the pandemic’s negative impact on cancer referrals.

In further important news, NHS England announced it is expanding direct access to diagnostic scans across all GP practices. That will cut waiting times and speed up diagnosis or the all-clear for patients. Since November, every GP team has been able to directly order CT scans, ultrasounds or brain MRIs for patients with concerning symptoms, but who fall outside the NICE guidance threshold. Non-specific symptom pathways are transforming the way that people with symptoms not specific to one cancer, such as weight loss or fatigue, are either diagnosed or have cancer ruled out. That gives GPs a much-needed referral route, while speeding up and streamlining the process so that, where needed, people can start treatment earlier. Thankfully, with the increased level of referrals, the majority of people referred will be given the all-clear. However, it is crucial to start treatment promptly for those who are diagnosed, while giving peace of mind to those who do not have cancer.

On treatment, my Department has committed an additional £8 billion for the next two years, on top of the £2 billion elective recovery fund, to increase elective activity including for cancer services, because speed of treatment following early diagnosis is of course very important.

I am looking at the time and I know that I need to try to wrap up promptly. I will skip as fast as I can to a conclusion, while answering a couple of points that were raised as we go.

Many hon. Members commented on the pandemic. I recognise that the pandemic severely disrupted health services. The recovery of performance is a multi-year effort. The NHS is working very hard with a delivery plan specifically to tackle the covid elective care backlog. Under the plan, reducing the number of patients waiting over 62 days for treatment is a top priority.

Many hon. Members are interested in the progress of the 10-year cancer plan. We are reviewing the responses we have received on the call for evidence to that plan. In parallel, I am closely scrutinising holding the NHS to account on its elective recovery plan, a major part of which is cancer care, as well as looking to the future and making sure we drive forward research and innovation, including, for example, with our recently announced life sciences cancer mission which will invest over £22 million in a vaccine taskforce approach to cancer research.

I would like once again to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester for securing this debate today. I look forward to working with him and other hon. Members on improving cancer outcomes.