The drive to improve cancer services in the UK has slowed down over the last two years because of lost leadership, a dilution of focus and dwindling resources, a report by the Public Accounts Committee has concluded.

Earlier improvements to cancer services were driven by strong national leadership, but NHS England has downgraded the position of National Clinical Director for Cancer to only a part-time role, while the National Cancer Action Team has been dissolved.

Also, the PAC notes that focus on cancer has been watered down at the local level, as the previous 28 regional cancer networks have been replaced by 12 'strategic clinical networks' that also cover a wide range of other diseases, and the effectiveness of which has been “variable”.

The UK is still lagging on cancer survival rates compared to the rest of Europe, the NHS is failing to meet key waiting time targets as it struggles with increasing demand, and there remains “unacceptable and unexplained variation in the performance of cancer services across the country”, PAC chair Margaret Hodge MP noted.

The report also slams NHS England for failing to understand the reasons behind local variation and for failing to hold to account poor performance. It also admonishes the Department and NHS England for not having sufficient data to evaluate the impact of the Cancer Drugs Fund on patient outcomes before extending the until 2016 and boosting its budget. 

Getting service back on track

“The Department and NHS England must seriously consider whether the new arrangements for promoting improvements in cancer care provide the leadership and support required,” Hodge said, and called on all parties involved to “redouble their efforts to regain lost momentum and get improvements in cancer services back on track”.

Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy, Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK’s Sarah Woolnough said the report “starkly illustrates the challenges facing existing cancer services”. 

“We hope it will urgently catalyse NHS England, the Department of Health and others charged with providing cancer care to deliver the best for all patients, no matter their age, the cancer they suffer from or where they live”.