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After the elections, how are the devolved nations planning to tackle cancer?

by Mona Vaghefian | Analysis

10 May 2016

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As the dust settles on last week’s polls, newly elected members will take their seats at the Scottish Parliament, and in the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland.

But while these nations’ elections may generate fewer column inches than last year’s general election, they’re crucial for the 10 million people who live across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – particularly where health is concerned.

That’s because, just under 20 years ago, responsibility for health policy was largely handed over – or ‘devolved’ – to these nations’ governments.

This means each one has control over its own health budget and healthcare system – and this includes its policies to tackle cancer. And given that the devolved nations have higher cancer incidence and mortality rates than England, these policies are particularly important.

Over the past few months, we’ve been campaigning across the three nations to ensure that all parties understand our priorities on cancer. Our campaigns in each nation attracted the support of nearly 350 candidates, and more than 8,500 members of the public got involved – as you can see in the video above.

So let’s look at what we campaigned for in each nation, and at what last week’s results mean for health policy and political action against cancer.

Scotland – diagnosing earlier

Cancer is Scotland’s biggest killer. And while, thanks to research, survival is improving, Scotland’s cancer survival still lags behind other comparable countries. What can be done to boost it?

The earlier a person’s cancer is diagnosed, the better chance they have of successful treatment. But the waiting time targets for getting patients tested for suspected symptoms have not been met in Scotland since 2013. So our campaign, Scotland Vs Cancer, focused on early diagnosis – specifically, making sure patients with suspect symptoms are sent for diagnostic tests more quickly.

There were encouraging signs before the election, as the previous Scottish Government, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), published its cancer strategy.

This set out a welcome commitment to an additional £100m over the next five years, and tangible actions across most of the areas we think are important – from prevention and early diagnosis, to treatment and services (and you can read our thoughts about it in this post). More specifically, it commits an additional £2m per year to a diagnostics fund, and to buy 2,000 more scopes a year too.

The good news is that the election result in Scotland give us some clarity on what’s ahead.

Because while the result might not have been quite as clear-cut as many were expecting – with the SNP very narrowly missing out on an outright majority – it will still govern as a minority. So while it will have to seek support from other parties to pass legislation, we look forward to seeing the SNP putting its cancer strategy into action. And we’ll be making sure it does.

Wales – boosting screening

We also wanted the Welsh Government to speed up the time taken to get patients diagnosed. But we wanted to see improving cancer screening too – in particular, the introduction of better screening tests, and more people taking part.

For example, cervical screening can be improved by initially testing samples for the presence of the cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) instead of the current method – liquid-based cytology – which relies on looking for abnormal cells down a microscope. As well as being a better test, initial HPV testing will also save the NHS money in the long term.

As a result of our Wales Vs Cancer campaign, both early diagnosis and improved screening were broadly reflected in the manifestos of all five major parties (Labour, the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dem and UKIP).

The election results saw Welsh Labour returned as the largest party in the Assembly, with 29 out of 60 seats. So, like the SNP in Scotland, it will continue to govern as a minority party.

The Welsh Labour manifesto may have lacked specific details on improving access to cancer tests and boosting screening, but we do expect it to continue its previous plans over the next Assembly term – including their Cancer Delivery Plan which sets out the Welsh Government’s vision for NHS cancer services.

This means there’s now a great opportunity to continue to speak to Welsh Assembly members, to make sure they’re kept abreast of our latest thinking on how to improve things for patients in Wales.

Northern Ireland – a strategic plan

In Northern Ireland, the post-election scene is also one of minimal political change. While there were some individual winners and losers, the overall result leaves Northern Ireland with a similar overall position to before the election, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the largest party, followed by Sinn Féin. That means DUP Leader Arlene Foster will remain as First Minister, with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as her Deputy.

Three other parties – the Ulster Unionists (UUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Alliance – remain in the second tier of parties. But the way the Northern Ireland Executive is formed is complex, and there is still some negotiating before the situation will be finalised.

Last term, all five of these parties formed a coalition. But new legislation allows for an official opposition for the first time in Northern Ireland, and at the time of writing the UUP, SDLP and Alliance parties are all considering whether they will participate in the coalition government or form an opposition, either separately or in some combination. So it’s all the more important to get consensus from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland.

This is something we achieved with our Northern Ireland Vs Cancer campaign – after almost 4,000 members of the public got involved.

Our call was for the new Executive to commit to draw together a comprehensive cancer strategy for Northern Ireland, setting a clear national direction, identifying priorities in health care, and improving cancer services.

We know from other UK nations that cancer strategies work. That’s why we were delighted that four of the five major parties included a call for a comprehensive cancer strategy in their election manifestos.

We look forward to working with all parties in Northern Ireland to help them draw up a fully costed cancer strategy, with new funding, key actions and measureable targets. With more than 24 people diagnosed with cancer every single day in Northern Ireland, a cancer strategy is a vital step towards improving things for these patients.

What happens next?

Now that the results are in, we’ll be getting to work speaking to politicians and administrators across the spectrum, in all three nations. As ever our aim is to make sure that cancer remains high on the political agenda.

With more than 100 new elected representatives across the three nations, this is a great opportunity to champion the views of patients and researchers, and to bring in new advocates for the work we do.

And you can get involved too. If you would like to help us campaign in the devolved nations, then join us as an e-campaigner or Campaigns Ambassador. If you’re an elected representative, we hope to speak to you soon, and you can find out more about our work in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on our website.

  • Mona Vaghefian is a public affairs officer at Cancer Research UK