Opinion: ‘Wales needs more than a three-page statement to get cancer services back on track’

Cancer
Wales A&E sign

At a time when cancer services in Wales have been severely disrupted due to the pandemic, the Welsh Government’s decision to publish just a short statement rather than a full cancer strategy on how it intends to provide and improve patient care over the next 5 years is unacceptable. Simply put, it’s failing cancer patients in Wales.

Cancer strategies matter. Just ask The World Health Organisation, which recommends that every nation should have one. Until the end of 2020, Wales had a Cancer Delivery Plan, which had ambitions for cancer care that matched the best in Europe. This strategy, which spanned 21 pages, has been replaced by a Quality Statement for Cancer that’s just 3 pages long.

Leadership

Each year in Wales, around 19,300 people are diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, around 9,000 people die of the disease each year.

At Cancer Research UK, our ambition is that more people survive. To achieve this goal, we look to the Welsh Government to put effective measures in place to address some of the biggest problems facing cancer services. Transformation and problem-solving needs leadership and a strong foundation. This Quality Statement falls far short.

Together with the 20 other leading cancer charities who make up the Wales Cancer Alliance, we’re strongly urging the Welsh Government to change its approach and commit to a more comprehensive cancer strategy, like those seen elsewhere.

England and Scotland already have cancer plans in place, and we hope to see a new strategy launched in Northern Ireland this year. Wales could soon be the only UK nation without a cancer strategy.

Innovations and improvements for cancer patients

What we’re calling for goes deeper than replacing one plan with the next, just for the sake of having one. Far from an abstract concept, a cancer strategy is an incredibly important document that, when effective, can lead to demonstrable improvements for cancer patients.

It can help to drive change in how cancer services operate, leading to innovations that simply would not happen without the authority that a cancer strategy can bring and bringing us in line with other, better performing countries.

Take the Single Cancer Pathway, an innovation that can be directly linked to the now expired Cancer Deliver Plan. A UK first, it was introduced in 2019 and creates a more ambitious way of tracking every cancer diagnosis in Wales. With the help of a new cancer strategy, the Single Cancer Pathway could be the driver for a transformation in early diagnosis.

Rapid diagnostic clinics were piloted as a result of the Plan and these are now being rolled out across Wales for patients with non-specific but concerning symptoms that could be cancer.

Setting ambitious targets, tracking progress, embedding strong leadership, and supporting collaboration between government, clinicians, third sector organisations and patients, as well as much needed investment for staff, equipment and infrastructure, all these elements are missing from the Welsh Government’s Quality Statement for Cancer.

And if there’s ever been a time for strong leadership and a clear direction, it’s now.

Tackling the backlog of people waiting for a cancer diagnosis

Over the last year, cancer services have been heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We estimate that around 1,800 fewer people started cancer treatment in Wales from April to December 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, with some of the largest drops in breast, urological, lower GI and lung cancers. We need a strategy to outline how this significant backlog in cancer diagnoses and treatment will be tackled as quickly and safely as possible.

Today, the Welsh Government has also announced an NHS Recovery Plan, along with £100m to fund it. While it includes sections on cancer and diagnostics, there remains a lack of detail about exactly how services can recover. And so, the establishment of a comprehensive cancer strategy has become even more important as we emerge from the pandemic. This was a point raised by the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru Cross Party Group on Cancer in its report in November 2020. A new cancer strategy for Wales was its first recommendation.

The path to recovery

Essentially, the Quality Statement represents a missed opportunity to address the biggest issues facing cancer diagnosis and care. For example, it says nothing about how shortages among staff who run scans and tests to detect cancer will be tackled, something which will hold back progress and stall clearing the backlog of people waiting for a diagnosis. It’s also uncertain how local health boards will be held to account on their performance by a document so light in detail.

Right now, we need to see a bold and ambitious vision, where we can see the path to recovery from the pandemic, where cancer services for people in Wales are improved in the long term and ultimately lives are saved. Simply, this document is not good enough.

Andy Glyde is a senior external affairs manager at Cancer Research UK

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