Concern about cancer treatment backlog as targets for cancer waiting times show little improvement


NHS England just released the latest cancer waiting times figures and London has missed its key cancer waiting times targets again in three of the key areas[i].

Additionally, in October, waiting times across the capital for those starting first treatment showed improvement compared to September but have still not bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.

The percentage difference in activity for the number of two week wait appointments to see a specialist after a GP referral, first treatments and first treatments following an urgent referral all show a bigger year on year gap (Oct 2020 vs Oct 2019) than last month (Sep 2020 vs Sep 2019). It’s not a huge swing but these numbers should continue to increase, not just to 2019 levels but to surpass 2019 levels in order to work through the backlog. So far, we’re not seeing them even reach 2019 levels, which is cause for concern.

Between March and October 2020, there were 4,849 fewer people starting first cancer treatment in London compared to the same period in 2019. We also count 76,595 fewer people seeing a specialist following an urgent referral for suspected cancer in during this period in 2020 compared to 2019.

In terms of waiting times targets, only the 31 day wait to first treatment target was met in London in October (of the 4 key targets we’ve analysed.

Sara Bainbridge, Head of Policy & Influence at Macmillan Cancer Support, said:
“October’s cancer waiting times figures show a gradual climb in the number of people being referred for cancer tests and starting treatment in London, compared with September, which is welcome news considering the increased pressure on hospitals from Covid-19 admissions, but these figures are still lower than in the same period last year.

“The reality is that tens of thousands of people are still missing cancer diagnoses as a result of the disruption caused by the coronavirus, and we urgently need to see activity rising above 2019 levels, in order to start clearing the backlog of both diagnoses and treatment in England.

“Behind each statistic is a real person who has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic and we need the Government to continue providing the NHS with the staffing and resources it needs to catch up, with real acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge. Anyone with any cancer symptoms must also make contacting their GP a priority. We cannot risk cancer becoming the ‘forgotten C’ in this second wave.”

Emma Tingley, Macmillan Strategic Partnerships Manager for London, adds:

“It is important to say that all healthcare professionals and staff across the capital are working tirelessly to offer the best possible care, support people and save lives. However, far fewer patients are being treated for cancer in the capital than last year and we continue to be concerned about the detrimental impact the backlog is having on the personalised care and support people living with cancer need now.

“Macmillan continues to support both professionals and thousands of Londoners with cancer or with cancer symptoms that may have faced disruption to their tests or treatment, worrying about the long-term implications for their health, their families and their future.”

During the pandemic, Macmillan continues to support people with cancer and gives them practical, emotional and financial help. We rely entirely on public donations and our income has dropped significantly. To donate to Macmillan Cancer Support’s emergency appeal please go to: or call 0300 1000 200.

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