Matt Hancock: Suppress Covid to keep cancer services running

6 October 2020, 19:28 | Updated: 6 October 2020, 19:34

Health Secretary Matt Hancock answering questions in the House of Commons
Health Secretary Matt Hancock answering questions in the House of Commons. Picture: PA

Matt Hancock has said the "best way to keep cancer services running is to suppress" coronavirus after it was revealed waiting lists to see a specialist had continued to grow since August.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the Health Secretary said it was important to "bear down" on the long waiting times for cancer patients to see a specialist.

His comments came after shadow public health minister Alex Norris revealed the waiting list to see a specialist grew by 16% between August and September.

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When the lockdown was first announced in the spring, chemotherapy and surgeries were missed as hospitals diverted resources to focus on treating Covid-19.

Mr Hancock said: "It’s critical for everybody to understand that the best way to keep cancer services running is to suppress the disease, and the more the disease is under control the more we can both recover and continue with cancer treatments."

Mr Norris said: "At June's departmental questions, I pressed ministers on the cancer backlog that has grown so greatly under Covid.

"So it was alarming that, despite those ministerial assurances that between August and September, with (coronavirus) infection rates of course being much lower than they are today, the waiting list to see a specialist grew by 16%.

"Things will only get harder now infection rates are rising and with the NHS facing winter pressures.

"So will (Mr Hancock) give us a categorical assurance that he does have a cancer recovery plan and that this plan will drive down these waiting lists in each month for the rest of the year?"

Mr Hancock responded: "Yes, absolutely. I think we agree right across this House of the importance of this agenda.

"The first and most important part of it is to bear down on the long waits because, of course, the longer that you wait, the more dangerous cancer can become.

"That is happening and, as I say, we've also got to make sure we bring the referrals forward because we don't want to have fewer people referred for the diagnostics and then, at the same time as that, we are expanding the diagnostics that are available, both in hospitals and increasingly in community hubs, which are both safer from a Covid point of view, and for the long term will mean that diagnostics centres for things like cancer can be perhaps on a high street or in the places where people live."

Experts have warned that tens of thousands of people could die as a result of delayed or missed cancer screenings, referrals or treatments.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the cross-party Commons health and social care committee, warned on October 1 that tens of thousands of patients could die from undetected or untreated illnesses - including cancer and heart disease.

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He said: "We’ve heard of severe disruption to services, especially cancer, and here we could be looking at tens of thousands of avoidable deaths within a year."

Almost 2.5million people missed cancer screenings during lockdown. Last week charity Breast Cancer Now warned that 1million women may have missed screenings during lockdown which may lead to thousands of deaths.

However, it was also announced today that the backlog of delayed breast screening appointments has been reduced from more than 468,000 to below 52,000 in the last three months, according to Conservative MP Jo Churchill.

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She also urged those who receive screening invitations to attend their appointments as "all services" have restarted.

Responding to a question from Labour's Kim Johnson (Liverpool Riverside) about the continuation of breast screening during the Covid-19 outbreak, Ms Churchill told the Commons: "Women at greatest risk of breast cancer continue to be prioritised for screening.

"The NHS has worked hard and significantly reduced the backlog of delayed breast screening appointments from over 468,000 in June to under 52,000 in September.

"All services have now been restarted and, in this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the message is clear: when you get a screening invite, please attend, and if you are worried about anything, contact your general practitioner."