England now leads Scotland and Wales in terms of enabling access to life-extending cancer drug treatments, and this is a direct result of the Cancer Drugs Fund, claims a new report.

People in Wales are five times less likely, and those in Scotland are three times less likely, to get access to a newer cancer drug than their neighbours in England, yet the cost of delivering comparable access for these patients would be only £1 per person in Scotland and Wales per year, according to the report, produced by the Rarer Cancers Foundation (RCF).  

There are now 24 cancer treatments which are not routinely available in Wales which may be available in England through the Cancer Drugs Fund, and for Scotland the figure is 23, says the study. The cost of improving access to cancer drugs in Wales to similar levels in England would be £3,318.814, and over a three-year period this cost could be expected to grow to £9.7-£9.9 million, while for Scotland the figures are £5,172,390, and £16.8-£19.6 million, respectively, the RCF estimates.

The charity accuses both the Scottish and Welsh governments of displaying "a concerning degree of complacency" about access to cancer treatments. Both governments have argued that there is no need for policies to improve access, as patients are able to gain access to drugs which their clinicians wish to prescribe for them through exceptional case processes or individual patient funding requests, it says.

For example, the report quotes Welsh Assembly Government First Minister Carwyn Jones as stating in March 2011 that "we do not see the need for a separate Cancer Drugs Fund in Wales," and adding: "it may well be that the Cancer Drugs Fund in needed in England to make up a shortfall that does not exist in Wales."

Also in March, Scottish Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "drugs can still be make available for individual patients even if they are not recommended for general use. Doctors in every health board can apply for individuals to receive a drug not generally recommended if they believe it would help."

However, the RCF says the findings of its report reveal that, contrary to these arguments, there are significant variations in access to newer cancer drugs across the UK, and these cannot be explained by variations in clinical need or practice alone. Public confidence in the NHS is based on the fact that it provides for patients based on their clinical need and not their ability to pay or where they live, yet this report reveals that this is not the case for cancer drugs, it adds.

"The Cancer Drugs Fund is great news for people in England and has already benefitted thousands of patients. However, a devastating divide has opened up with Scotland and Wales," said Andrew Wilson, chief executive of the RCF, commenting on the findings.

"A cancer drug does not become any less effective simply because it is prescribed on the other side of a border. Nor does a patient's need become any less pressing," he added.