UK Politics

Cancer test waiting times to be cut in England, Labour pledges

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Media captionEd Miliband: "Tobacco firms make soaring profits"

No-one in England will have to wait more than a week for cancer tests and results under a future Labour government, the party has pledged.

Labour said the £750m cost of implementing the pledge by 2020 would be covered by a levy on tobacco firms.

Party leader Ed Miliband said early diagnosis of cancer was "critical" and could save up to 10,000 lives a year.

But a government spokesman said Labour "simply can't be trusted to deliver improvements in cancer care".

There is currently a recommended six-week limit for diagnostic tests in England, including tests to diagnose cancer.

Latest figures show the number of people waiting longer than this is increasing.

'Longer final diagnosis'

Suzy Lishman, vice president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: "We'd all agree that diagnosing cancer at an early stage is a good thing to do but the important thing for the public to understand is that this doesn't mean that all cancer tests would be done and a final diagnosis made within seven days.

"It's likely to take more tests and it's likely to take longer."

Shadow health minister Liz Kendall denied suggestions Labour's promise was a gimmick.

"What's really important is that GPs can, when they need tests done, get them done quickly, that the staff are available to make sure that those tests happen and that people get the results back swiftly too," she said.

"This is what the Royal College of GPs and radiologists say should be the best practice and that's what we should aim for."

Labour says that within a week of being referred by their GP, a patient would have received both their tests and their results, meaning patients can start treatment sooner and suffer less anxiety while waiting for results,

Cash pledge

Labour is also promising a one-week target for "all urgent diagnostics" - not just cancer - by 2025.

It would launch "public awareness campaigns" to encourage people to visit their doctor and spot possible signs of cancer, introduce more training for GPs and consider new screening programmes for lung and ovarian cancer.

Mr Miliband said: "When people go and see their GP, they want to know that if there's something potentially wrong they can get testing done quickly.

"What Labour's plans say is let's raise revenue from the tobacco companies who make all of this money from people smoking - all of this money on the back of ill health - and let's use that money to improve cancer testing and get those waiting times down."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Miliband wants to introduce a levy on tobacco firms to cover the cost of reduced waiting times

In his party conference speech last month, Mr Miliband pledged an extra £2.5bn to, as he put it, "save and transform the NHS".

But it was later claimed by its opponents that none of that funding would be available until halfway through the next parliament.

Labour says the cancer test guarantee is one of the priorities for the £2.5bn fund.

Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said a levy would be "entirely appropriate" but called for early diagnosis for other smoking-related conditions.

"The tobacco industry continues to make enormous profits at the expense of the nation's health and costs the UK 100,000 lives every year.

"Prevention campaigns could also help to significantly reduce the number of people who smoke in the UK and should be included under the levy."

'Tough economic decisions'

A government spokesman said Labour "simply can't be trusted" to deliver improvements in cancer care and that the government was trying to improve "some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe".

He said: "We're now referring record numbers of patients with a suspected cancer for treatment, delivering 10,000 more tests every day to diagnose more cancers earlier, and giving people access to the most advanced new drugs.

"Already in this parliament, we have invested an extra £750m to improve early diagnosis and cancer care, but can only do that because we are taking the tough economic decisions that allow us to fund the NHS properly - decisions that Labour have opposed at every stage."

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Conservative party conference the government had "transformed cancer diagnosis", saying "so far this parliament we have treated nearly three quarters of a million more people for cancer than [during] the last one".

Earlier this year the Welsh government announced a pilot system to monitor cancer treatment times and assess whether patients received timely care.

In Scotland, waiting times for cancer treatment have improved but nine of the country's health boards have failed to meet a key target for cancer treatment times.

Medical experts recently warned that cancer services in Northern Ireland were under pressure, with treatment waiting times increasing.

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