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Health experts call on next government to declare NHS a national emergency


The NHS is in such a terrible state that the next government should declare it a national emergency, health experts are warning, as figures reveal that record numbers of cancer patients are being denied treatment within target deadlines.

The service is facing an “existential threat” because of years of underinvestment, significant staff shortages and the growing demands of the post-war ‘baby boomers’, according to a panel of leading doctors and NHS leaders.

They add that whichever political party forms the next government will have to “relaunch” the NHS and ask the public to help save it and preserve its founding principles.

The call, by a commission of experts assembled by the BMJ medical journal, comes as new figures show that since 2020 more than 200,000 people in England have not received potentially life-saving surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy within the NHS’s maximum 62-day wait.

The BMJ’s Commission on the Future of the NHS concluded that “the health service is in crisis, stretched beyond breaking point”, with radical action needed by the next government to ensure it remains a universal service with free public access, funded from general taxation.

“Given the extreme seriousness of the situation, we recommend that the government in post after the election should declare a national health and care emergency calling on all parts of society to help improve health, care and wellbeing. The next government should, in effect, relaunch the NHS.”

The high-level panel has been co-chaired by chair of the NHS Confederation, Lord Victor Adebowale, and its 30 members include senior doctors, health service leaders, public health experts, an ex-NHS chief executive and experts in health policy.

A leading NHS oncologist, who helped analyse NHS cancer care data for the panel, Prof Pat Price, said that the UK was facing “the deepest cancer crisis” of her 30-year career in treating cancer patients.

The NHS target is that 85% of cancer patients should receive their first treatment within 62 days of being urgently referred by a GP. International research shows that every four weeks of delay in receiving treatment can lead to a 10% increased risk of dying from the disease.

But the analysis, by Radiotherapy UK and the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, found that 222,577 people did not start treatment within 62 days between January 2020, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic, and November 2023. This represents 33% of all the those referred for treatment during that time.

Breast cancer patients were most likely to start treatment within 62 days. A total of 77% did so but 23% did not. However, 53% of colon cancer patients and 41% of lung cancer sufferers had to wait more than the two-month target to have chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery.

The number of cancer patients waiting more than two months has risen steeply, from 37,243 in 2020 to 69,100 in the first 11 months of 2023, although referrals are also rising.

NHS managers said they agreed with the panel’s plea for it to receive much greater support but NHS Confederation director of policy, Dr Layla McCay, cautioned that the next administration would have to show deep resolve, and provide extra funding, to “get back on track.”

She said: “Declaring a national health and care emergency is not going to solve any of the problems it highlights without the commitment to fix it. In the short term we want to see more capital invested to improve infrastructure, buy new equipment, and boost productivity. In the long term, governments need to continue to commit and invest in the workforce plan as well as invest in preventive services and move care closer to home.”

Pressure on the NHS is likely to become even more intense as a result of the expected continued growth in the UK’s population and proportion of older people. New Office for National Statistics projections show that the population could reach almost 74m by 2036 and the number of people of pensionable age could rise by 1m by 2039.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re providing record funding for the NHS, we’ve met our pledge to recruit 50,000 more nurses early, and we’ve put in place the first ever NHS Long Term Workforce Plan to make sure the NHS has the staff it needs in the years ahead.

“We’re supporting the NHS to recover from the pandemic and deal with the Covid-19 backlog. Cutting waiting lists is one of the government’s top five priorities.

“November was the first month without industrial action for over a year and we reduced the total waiting list by more than 95,000, the biggest decrease since December 2010, outside the pandemic.”