Our ambassadors standing in front of the houses of Parliament.
This post was updated on Monday 2nd December to fact check claims about how many staff the NHS needs.
Disclaimer: because each nation in the UK runs it’s own health system, this election hasn’t featured lots of discussion about the health systems of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We’ve included questions about these nations when they’ve come up, but otherwise most of the questions are about the health service in England.
It’s already been a busy year for politics. But with six weeks of campaigning before the General Election on 12th December, the noise from political parties is only set to increase. And the NHS and health are becoming key areas of debate.
To help sort the hard facts from the political point-scoring, we’ll be keeping an eye out for any claims about cancer.
How many more staff does the NHS need?
In the last couple of weeks, senior NHS leaders said that a lack of doctors and nurses is putting patient safety at risk, while each of the political parties have published manifestos, outlining their suggestions for how to make sure our health system has enough staff.
The big question is: how many more staff does the NHS need?
The first job will be to fill gaps. There are vacancies across the NHS – including for cancer, where 1 in 10 diagnostic posts are unfilled. The chief executive of the NHS Confederation has said that across England, the NHS would need about 100,000 more staff to run its services.
But that’s just to meet current demand. Pressure on the NHS is going to increase as our population grows and gets older – by 2035, more than 500,000 people in the UK are expected to be diagnosed with cancer each year. So the second job will be ensuring there are enough staff to keep up. To take one example, the NHS will need 70% more radiologists in 10 years compared to current numbers to meet growing demand.
Finally, after filling gaps and keeping up with demand, we want to improve quality of care, which – you guessed it – means more staff, amongst other things.
All of this means the NHS will need to think long-term and plan properly. Nobody really knows yet how many more staff we’ll need, so we’re calling on the next Government to make a long-term, fully-funded plan so the NHS can meet these challenges, and diagnose cancer earlier.
Are waits for diagnostic tests in England at their highest for 11 years?
Waiting times were a big topic of discussion last week, with a claim emerging that waits for diagnostic tests have reached their highest for 11 years.
This waiting time includes anyone who has been referred by their GP for a diagnostic test. That could include tests to diagnose or rule out cancer, but it includes people who have been referred for other things too.
The target for NHS England is that patients should have a test within 6 weeks of being referred. And according to the 2019 figures, the proportion of people waiting 6 weeks or longer for diagnostic tests has been higher than at any point in the last 11 years.
A major reason for this is the NHS doesn’t have enough staff conducting diagnostic tests – 1 in 10 diagnostic posts in the NHS are currently unfilled.
Are more people waiting longer for urgent cancer treatment?
One claim you may have heard is that the number of people waiting longer for urgent cancer treatment has tripled over the past 9 years.
Let’s start with what it means to ‘wait longer’. If a GP suspects someone has cancer and urgently refers them to a specialist, the NHS aims to make sure they see that specialist within 2 weeks and, if needed, begin treatment within 62 days.
Over the past 9 years, the number of people in England who have waited longer than 62 days hasn’t quite tripled, but it has gone up: from around 13,400 people in 2009-2010 to around 34,200 people in 2018-19.
But, the number of people who did start treatment within 62 days has also gone up. Around 84,200 people in 2009-2010 were treated within the timeframe, which went up to around 130,000 people in 2018-19.
The rise in both numbers is because more people are being referred by their GPs. And that’s why it’s more useful to look at the proportion of people who’ve been treated on time, which has fallen from about 86% in 2009-10, to about 79% in 2018-19.
This shows that the NHS can’t keep up with rising demand, and this is partly because it doesn’t have enough staff to diagnose and treat cancer.
Are survival rates improving in England?
The short answer is that, on the whole, survival rates have been improving. In England and Wales, the number of people who survive their cancer for 1, 5 and 10 years has been going up since the early 1970s.
But while the figures are moving in the right direction, it’s important to put them into context. We recently published analysis showing that overall, UK cancer survival still lags behind comparable countries like Australia, Canada, and Ireland, with late diagnosis being a key reason.
Does waiting longer affect how likely someone is to survive their cancer?
It’s been said that the longer people wait, the less chance they have of surviving their cancer.
It’s hard to say that waiting longer always means a lower chance of survival, because there are so many factors involved. What kind of cancer someone has, or how well their cancer responds to treatment are just two things that affect whether waiting longer lowers someone’s chance of survival.
That said, we know that being diagnosed and treated early gives people the best possible chance of survival, and in that sense the claim is spot on. Late diagnosis in the UK is a major reason we fall behind comparable countries for cancer survival – around 115,000 people in England are diagnosed at a late stage each year.
Are Wales missing cancer treatment waiting time targets?
Another claim to come out of Prime Minister’s Questions was that the cancer treatment waiting time in Wales has not been met since June 2008.
Wales has missed the target of having 95% of patients start treatment within 62 days of urgent referral for cancer since around November 2008, with the exception of a few months in 2010. Currently only around 80% of patients in Wales are starting treatment within 62 days of their urgent referral.
But, to add some context, none of the UK nations are meeting their respective waiting time targets at the minute.
And Wales has just introduced new, single cancer waiting time for all patients, which says all patients should start treatment within 62 days of the first suspicion of cancer. It hasn’t set a figure for this target yet, but it’s the first UK nation to try this approach and others will be watching with interest to see if it has an impact.
Do we have more or fewer nurses and doctors in the NHS?
Lots of NHS staff numbers get thrown around and it can be confusing. A few recent claims include:
- There are 17,300 more doctors and over 17,000 more nurses on wards since 2010
- GP numbers are falling and there is a 43,000-nurse shortage in the NHS
It’s hard to say if these exact numbers are correct – though similar figures are quoted by the Nuffield Trust and the NHS. The important point is the overall situation: staff numbers are up in some professions, but there still aren’t enough staff to meet demand.
A lot of this is because our population is ageing and demand on the NHS is rising.
How much funding is the NHS really getting?
Context is key when it comes to NHS figures, perfectly demonstrated by the following 2 claims, which at first seem contradictory:
- ‘This Government are investing £34 billion in the NHS.’
- ‘The NHS has suffered the longest spending squeeze ever in its history.’
First, where has the £34 billion figure come from? The NHS long-term plan was announced in 2018, committing to £20.5 billion of investment for NHS England by 2024. And Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will get about £14 billion between them to mirror the increase in funding in England. All in all, that’s about £34 billion.
That said, NHS funding has been rising at a slower rate than ever before. Before 2010, NHS funding went up every year by about 3.4%. But since 2010, it’s only gone up by about 1.5% a year.
When it comes to cancer, it’s crucial the NHS has what it needs to diagnose and treat cancer early – from a full-strength workforce to top-quality equipment. The ambition in the NHS long-term plan to diagnose more cancer is fantastic, but it won’t be possible unless we have enough staff.
Joseph Ewing is a public affairs officer at Cancer Research UK
Want more facts? Have a read of our recent report ‘Cancer in the UK – 2019’, which gives an overview of prevention, early Diagnosis, treatment, data and research across the nation.
Panda December 15, 2019
When will Cancer Research advise people that consuming animal products is a massive contributor to cancer. If people eliminated meat, eggs and dairy from their diet it would decrease the development of cancer and therefore reduce the demand on the nhs. Please can this be encouraged so that we all live healthier lives.
Morag Ranson December 13, 2019
Thank you Helen for your post . I agree with you strongly . I am a retired doctor and had treatments for cancer 3 years ago . The team who looked after me were so kind , and professional and hardworking Even 3 years ago there were signs that fantastic radiology team and pathology team were struggling with sheer quantity of work . In these times of disinformation it is vital that the facts are communicated Thank you CRUK for your efforts and integrity .
David December 12, 2019
My wife had breast cancer a while ago and the treatment was amazing and because of the prompt reaction by the NHS and the hard work of Cancer research she made a full recovery. I think we all know there are not enough doctors and nurses but I do think that before the government starts throwing billions of pounds at the NHS it should make shore that they get rid of all the waste and duplication. E.G. My friend has hundreds of pounds worth of medical equipment that he was given following a prostate operation it is unused and factory sealed yet he has been told to throw it away as the hospital doesn’t want it. There is appsolutly nothing wrong with it. If you multiply that by the thousands of people who are in similar situations you can see why the NHS is in such a state.
Ali December 12, 2019
Absolutely excellent information thank you so much- so helpful to receive clarity on these issues – I choose not to engage with egoic political campaigns so really value reputable sources of fact!
Alexander McCutcheon December 12, 2019
A bladder cancer 3 month cystoscopy check was eventually carried out after 10 months. Fortunately all is well.
Dorothy Oldham December 11, 2019
I was a cancer patient at The Christie in Manchester and thanks to the wonderful staff there I am now in my 12th year of remission. I have been looking at the management structure of the NHS on line and am appalled to see 8 levels of management. Is this really necessary? The term “too many chiefs and not enough indians” comes to mind. The NHS needs massive investment now and in the future. It’s allvery well saying they are going to recruit tens of thousands of nurses and doctors – where from? How long will it take to train them? Does it take into account the number of people who will be retiring from the profession? Sorry but it’s just numbers to me.
Sally Richardson December 11, 2019
Poverty is a major factor in ill health. Our society is unequal, in spite of it being rich. Things such as obesity and unhealthy lifestyles often come down to poverty and inequality. This isn’t to blame the poor. Good food can be expensive, and if you’re on a low income junk food is cheap and can give you a ‘lift’. Calories are cheap, nutrition often not so. More equal societies enjoy better health, physical and mental.
Mike Boursnell December 11, 2019
What is the £34 billion in real terms?
Katie Roberts December 12, 2019
Thanks for your question about the £34 billion being invested in the NHS and what the figure is in real terms. The £34 billion is in real terms already – it’s been adjusted to take into account the effects of inflation, so the £34bn should still be worth £34bn in 2024. But as we say in the post, £20.5bn is planned for NHS England and the rest (about £14bn) will go to the devolved nations through the ‘Barnett formula’. Because the devolved nations decide how to spend their own budgets, there’s no obligation for them to spend this extra money on health.
Katie, Cancer Research UK
Leonard Norfolk December 11, 2019
In 1998 I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. 17 years later I got the all clear ,that was in 2015 The problem is in there joined up wisdom they never thought to keep an eye on me and check me over to perhaps see if there was a dormant cancer cell lurking? Once every 2 or 3 years. would seem a prudent coarse of action.2019 and bladder cancer is back with a vengeance.So imagine if these cancer experts would have used some ever day commen sense it could been dealt with far better than the more advanced state it is in today.All that extraordinary work you good people do was let down by a team of experts who probably thought they were saving money and getting good clear up results.
Sue Bywater December 11, 2019
I feel that more money people and commitment should be put into the Hospitals.
The Politician are messing about with real peoples lives. I think we should make sure they do what we ask of by putting them in charge of the Country. They act like spoilt Children , in fact they are worse than them.
Tanveer December 11, 2019
Well if the GMC are going to make it harder and harder for doctors to come in to the profession by inducing exams like UKMLA then it’s going to put doctors off to join in the first place staff will either leave or wont cope up with the stress after studying 6 years in medical school they need help in training and support but rather gmc makes it difficult each year
Krissmid December 11, 2019
Well said Helen. Speaking both as a nurse and a cancer patient, you hit the nail on the head. Well done for continuing your valued work role. Wishing you the very best in your treatment/recovery. From a member of the NHS. Xx
Dorothy Burgess December 11, 2019
No political party in recent history has ever planned the infrastructure for health and other essential services in line with population growth. Muddling through is beginning to show and increasing political point-scoring meddling is abhorrent.
Ian Blelloch December 11, 2019
I was diagnosed with Myeloma, stage 3 and have received fantastic treatment from the NHS.
What is clear from my treatment is that a clinician lead service is much more preferable to one that is management led. I can see major improvements in my hospital since I was first diagnosed in 2010.
Secondly, the NHS needs to have cross-party support to develop a long-term strategy for the service rather than a series of short-term changes in policy. A lot of the changes imposed are complete nonsense and defy the wishes of the clinicians and the patients.
John Hak December 11, 2019
The various plans being discussed need to be compared to other European countries with similar mixed populations to see what resource levels are employed and available. The resources quoted herein I suggest are not possible even in the long term. Therefore a plan that considers how say France, Germany and other European countries manage resources and compare budgets to check for parallels. The NHS in its present form is obviously not working as people would like and in my lifetime no Government of any colour has solved the problems.
Helen December 11, 2019
I don’t see that CR are behaving in a political manner.
As a cancer patient and Nurse working in a Cancer Hospital , I see the perspective of patients and staff.
As a patient , I saw with a nurses eyes how hard all hospital colleagues worked to provide timely care and emotional support for all patients. It’s not hard to see how busy they were working . Looking exhausted but still smiling , caring and treating patients with dignity and respect despite low staffing levels, high patient numbers and long shifts.
I have no doubt that if the NHS was privatised most patients would not be able to afford the cost of a medical health policy to cover care costs and medication especially if they have life limiting diseases. These are the facts . I can understand if you feel uncomfortable or annoyed about your political parties being judged, but all CR are doing is stating facts, and campaigning for timely access to treatment for all cancer sufferers regardless of political persuasion , nationality or culture. You may choose to rebuke them , stop donating , whatever . Just try to remember that in doing this the only people to suffer will be the ones who need and really truly gratefully receive your help.
CR helped me and my profession and Hospital. Following major life changing surgery and chemo I am still able to continue to work thanks to the research of CR and other charities , also the demanding and excellent work (hard work )of all my colleagues who provide the service .They made sure I’m still here, being with my family, colleagues and patients . That would be my wish for all NHS patients.
Hitesh December 11, 2019
Very enlightening facts and figures. It really puts into context the sums needed to be given just to invest in not only staff but also medicines and hospitals.
Linda Price December 11, 2019
Thank you for providing this information x
Tracey Savva December 11, 2019
Isn’t it telling that the facts as stated throw a very different light on the state of the health service. As a nation we need our politicians to have cross party agreement on how the nhs is funded and maintained.
The Fox Hat December 11, 2019
WHY ARE YOU GETTING INVOLVED WITH POLITICS ??? YOU ARE NOT POLITICALLY NEUTRAL AS YOU CLAIM BECAUSE THIS ARTICLE OPENLY PROMOTES THE LABOUR PARTY AS BEING THE “FREIND” OF THE NHS. I FOR ONE WILL BE WITHDRAWING MY SUPPORT TO YOUR CAUSE, WHICH SADDENS ME GREATLY HAVING BEEN A CANCER SUFFERER FOR 12 YEARS!
M J Clarke December 11, 2019
MARLENE GRIFFITHS December 11, 2019
Absolutely shocking and alarming. Something really needs to be sorted. Hope the next party to be elected can get their heads together and do something that is vital to help bring our NHS to a excellent service that was.j
Pauline December 11, 2019
Where are the Scottish figures? Very disappointed you haven’t done the same work on them
Katie Roberts December 11, 2019
We’ve had a few comments asking why the blog post doesn’t include more about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Because health is a ‘devolved’ policy area, each nation runs its own health system. The Westminster election hasn’t included many high-profile discussions about health in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland because it’s not up to the Westminster Government to make decisions about those health systems.
We work in all the devolved nations to make sure policy works for patients. You can read more about what we’re doing here.
Cancer Research UK
Graham Hertfordshire December 11, 2019
I’m very unhappy with such a political article.
Fact and figures can be easily distorted and I believe you are just as culpable here.
Robin Speakman December 11, 2019
I don’t think that as a charity you should be getting involved in political lobbying. The NHS is a priority for all parties -but, for example, Governments first priority is defense of the realm. Social care is also up there – perhaps education is even more important than health. Economics matters – scarce resources have to be allocated sensibly – this is not your role !!!
I remain a supporter!