THIS week Dr Andy Gaya, a consultant oncologist at Rutherford Cancer Centre Thames Valley, talks about the need to prioritise cancer care following the height of the pandemic. He writes:

Cancer must become the NHS’s top priority, or we risk thousands of avoidable deaths.

As Covid-19 fatalities and hospital admissions continue to fall, we must urgently turn our attention to the onset of another potential health crisis – delayed cancer treatment.

It was absolutely right that NHS services were reoriented to fight the coronavirus. The difficult measures that were taken ensured NHS services were not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Covid-19 patients, as we had seen in Italy a month earlier. Despite numerous setbacks with testing, hospital services remained well within capacity throughout the peak. This was a very positive result but it came at a price; services in other areas have been badly hit, particularly cancer.

The pandemic has meant that many surgeries and other cancer treatments have had to be delayed or cancelled. Some individual Trusts were even forced to shut down certain treatments for cancer entirely, such as chemotherapy. On top of all of this, referrals in April alone plummeted by a startling 70per cent. Many were afraid to have symptoms checked for fear of contracting the virus in hospital. The result is that we have lost precious time in combating cancer. It is too early to determine what the cost of this will be but it is very possible that there will be thousands of additional cancer deaths as a result.

It also remains a possibility that delays to cancer services will cost more lives than the number of Covid-19 patients saved. This would be a terrible result. To prevent that from happening, we must reorient our services once more with the same urgency and inventiveness as we did when coronavirus started spreading in the UK. Failure to do so could create a ‘wave’ of advanced cancer cases in the coming months which could overwhelm cancer services and create a separate public health crisis. Due to the prolonged nature of cancer treatment, overstretched services could take years to recover.

As a first step, we must ramp up cancer screening and diagnostic testing. Cancer diagnosis is a challenge even in normal times. An early diagnosis can make the difference between life or death and have a significant impact on long term quality of life. As a general rule, the earlier cancer is detected the better the outcome.

Bold thinking and imagination are required to overcome what could be the next health crisis. Patients who are suffering from cancer should rightly be given the priority they deserve having taken a backseat in the first half of 2020. The government has emphasised its eagerness to restart NHS services that were badly hit by Covid-19 and the NHS has launched an ‘open for business’ campaign to urge people to seek treatment for any ailments.

These are important first steps but not enough. We have a lot of time to make up. Now is the time to pool together resources to get ahead of cancer, and that means the public sector working collaboratively with the independent sector to ramp up cancer screening and diagnostics.

The NHS and the independent sectors have already been working together to ensure that cancer patients, and indeed patients with other serious conditions, received the treatments they needed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. This must be expanded and repurposed to place the emphasis on diagnosis. Such a collaboration could go a long way in revitalising screening and diagnostic services and drive up referrals.

What is important now is that we put the patient first. Patients who have serious diseases must not be seen as a lower priority any longer. We must exhaust every single option in the immediate future to turn the tide against cancer and re-establish the advantage of early diagnosis and treatment.

All spare capacity in both the private and public sectors should be utilised immediately to play “catch up”. That is the only way we can avert a second health crisis in the UK