About the Author: Rachel Smyth

15 July 2021

Our partner, MacMillan Cancer Support, has been raising timely concerns in the House of Commons about delays in cancer diagnosis and about the backlog in cancer treatment and care, as a consequence of giving priority to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic

It is estimated that 37,000 fewer people started their first cancer treatment last year.

NHS England has said they intend to intend to clear the backlog of patients waiting for cancer treatment caused by the pandemic by March 2022 and that referrals and treatments have been above normal levels since March 2021.

Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for NHS England, said there had been “an issue of not wanting to bother the NHS or being concerned to come forward” and emphasised the importance of having the right diagnostic and treatment capacity to address the issue. She highlighted that there had been a significant investment in radiotherapy and diagnostic kit with cancer being treated as a priority.

A committee of MPs also heard that there had been a drop in people coming forward with symptoms of lung cancer because of the crossover with COVID-19.

Kim Ryley, Co-Chair of the Coalition for Personalised Care and a cancer survivor himself, said: “We know that the pandemic has had a significant impact on both diagnosis and treatment for millions of people. There is still a large backlog of people waiting months for a diagnosis at what will be a worrying time for them and their families, many of whom will have cancer. This number is likely to grow as people now seek medical advice for the first time since the pandemic started.

Kim Ryley


“The Coalition’s Treatment Backlog Taskgroup is looking at how we can better help maintain a good quality of life for those awaiting diagnosis or treatment, based on a better understanding of their individual needs and circumstances.


“We have concerns that, in a crisis, health and care services can feel pressured to put in place blanket approaches to deal with large groups of people quickly, and so reduce waiting lists and times, though this can risk a poorer quality of treatment or support.

“But, people’s conditions, needs and preferences can differ widely, and some are more able to do more to help maintain good health while waiting, if properly supported. This ability to recognise different clinical, social and emotional needs will ensure a fairer approach to who is given priority.

“Even as we start a period of recovery from the pandemic, it is important that all care remains personalised around each individual, and that they are involved fully in the options, choices and decisions that affect their health.”