A five-point plan to kick start cancer services throughout the UK

With Covid-19 cases and deaths continuing to fall, the UK continues to slowly emerge from the pandemic with a phased approach to lifting the lockdown and bringing normality to people’s daily lives.

As we slowly return to normality, the scale of the damage wrought by this pandemic is becoming clearer. Nowhere is the collateral damage of Covid-19 more visible than cancer services. The government and the NHS are now rightly exploring urgent measures to kick start cancer services to avert another impending public health catastrophe, this time from cancer.

Indeed, our own chief medical officer, Professor Karol Sikora, has become a major public figure over the past two months. Dubbed the ‘positive professor’, he has consistently urged the British public not to be overly fearful of the virus and ensure that they take care of their overall health, whether it’s dealing with symptoms of the coronavirus or a lump that may be indicative of cancer.

Karol’s emphasis on the need to keep vital health services such as cardiac and cancer services open throughout the peak of the pandemic through various creative measures, including through greater public and independent sector collaboration, is more prescient now than ever as it emerged that over two million people are on cancer waiting lists for diagnosis or treatment due to COVID-related disruption to the NHS. The government now estimates that over 10 million people may be on waiting lists by the end of the year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Having predicted such a scenario from the onset of the pandemic, Karol is now calling for an urgent five-point action plan to tackle what could become another public health catastrophe, aimed at averting a worst-case scenario whereby more people die from cancer as a result of this pandemic than Covid-19 itself.

His five-point plan includes:

  1. Keeping cancer centres and treatment areas ‘COVID-free’ – including monitoring all patients for Covid-19 symptoms (temperature checks) and PCR tests for all staff at least once a week (similar to what the Premier League is doing with players/staff).
  2. Monitor cancer biopsy numbers closely for predicting treatment surge – existing data suggests that a surge could be due around August/September.
  3. Using all available capacity including the independent sector which collectively have 27 cancer treatment centres/units. These centres are scattered throughout the UK and can meet regional demand spikes for cancer services.
  4. Coordinate prioritisation of patients in both diagnostic and treatment pathways – ensure that accelerated regimens are in place to urgently treat patients who stand to be adversely affected by any delays.
  5. Instigate weekend and double-shift working through the peak – preparing our personnel and facilities in anticipation of the peak, much like the NHS did so successfully with Covid-19.

Whilst at this stage we do not know whether there will be a second wave of the virus, it is absolutely imperative that we utilise the time we have now to catch up with the startling backlog in cancer cases across the UK. It is simply not an option to wait around and hope for the best.

A surge in late-stage cancer cases in the coming months is now inevitable, but we still have a window of opportunity to tackle the crisis and prevent it from becoming a full-blown public health catastrophe. Karol’s five-point plan is our best hope of achieving that. The government and the NHS acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and their leadership in dealing with the backlog has been very encouraging. We must not allow cancer patients to become the biggest casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Mike Moran, chief executive officer, Rutherford Health.