Analysis of national data by Cancer Research UK revealed the target – aimed at making sure the majority of patients sent for urgent cancer investigations are seen within two months – has been missed across England for more than half a decade.
The charity is calling for major investment in services it says were struggling even before the coronavirus pandemic. The NHS states 85% of cancer patients urgently referred by a GP should start treatment within 62 days.
But NHS England data shows York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust fell behind the target every month between April 2019 – when comparable trust-level figures began – and July this year.
In July, just 67% of patients received cancer treatment within two months of an urgent referral. That was the same level as in June and a fall from 79% in July last year.
Cancer Research UK said pressures caused by the pandemic, including a growing list of patients, were a factor, but also laid blame on workforce shortages and insufficient infrastructure.
Professor Charles Swanton, the charity’s chief clinician, said: “For people with cancer, every day counts – that is why we have cancer targets.
“I’ve been working in the NHS for a long time and it’s hard to watch the continuous deterioration, and the anxiety and worsening outcomes this can cause patients.”
A York and Scarborough Teaching Hospital Trust spokesperson said: “In line with the national picture, the trust has been affected by significant staff absence, including in diagnostics services, that are over and above what had planned been for – a mix of Covid-19 related absence and other sickness.
“While treating more seriously ill patients in hospital with Covid has inevitably had a knock-on effect on other services and some people were reluctant to come forward, the trust has continued to prioritise cancer care throughout the pandemic and referral and treatment numbers are now back to usual levels.
“Last week we saw the highest ever number of cancer referrals to the trust and there has been a surge in breast referrals.
“Our priority for 2021-22 is identifying, diagnosing and treating the people we would have expected to have seen last year – most who would have been referred via their GP – but who did not come forward.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was providing record investment for the NHS, including an additional £9 billion for elective and cancer care.
A spokesperson said cancer diagnosis and treatment had remained “a top priority” throughout the pandemic.