The number of cancer patients who received their first treatment two months after an urgent GP referral was at a worrying low in Derbyshire in January 2022 Image credit: CC BY-NC 2.0.

Since March 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic has posed a host of challenges to society, and not least the UK’s health service. 

While the NHS has battled the virus, other areas of healthcare have inevitably suffered as funding, time and resources were diverted to more pressing concerns. 

Every area has suffered but figures recently released by the NHS show that in January 2022 the number of cancer patients who received their first treatment two months after an urgent GP referral was at a worrying low in Derbyshire. 

The operational standard aims for Clinical Care Groups (CCG) to provide treatment to 85 per cent of those referred within 62 days, but for the Derby and Derbyshire CCG this figure stands at just 57.3 per cent. 

“We’ve seen a record number of urgent cancer referrals over the last few months, more people continue to come forward for care who may have been reluctant to seek help during the pandemic,” says Dr Magnus Harrison, interim chief executive of the University Hospitals of Derby and Burton (UHDB) NHS Foundation Trust, which is part of the county’s CCG. 

“Cancer remains a priority but like many other trusts across the country, we are balancing increased demand with other ongoing pressures caused by Covid-19, such as staff sickness and staff isolation, which continue to impact our performance.

“Our cancer teams are having to work even harder or in different ways, including putting on additional outpatient clinics and using diagnostic services in the most efficient way, to manage the additional referrals and I cannot thank them enough for their unwavering dedication to supporting and caring for our patients.”

Outside Royal Derby Hospital
Credit: Daniela Loffreda

The Derby and Derbyshire CCG manages over 100 GP surgeries across the county, and covers its two main hospitals, the Royal Derby (RDH) and the Chesterfield Royal (CRH).

Derbyshire Live previously reported that in November 2021, there were more than 90 patients with Covid across the CCG, with eight of those in intensive care and thus requiring significant support. 

But meanwhile, the RDH – the CCG’s largest with 1,159 beds – saw a 19.4 per cent increase in the number of patients being referred with suspected cancer compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

That equates to around 24 new patients every working day, and the situation is not much better 30 miles north in Chesterfield.

While the Derby and Derbyshire CCG has, like others around the UK, struggled to juggle Covid-19 care and cancer treatments and blamed the pandemic for putting increased pressure on resources, it doesn’t deny the increase in the number of people seeking care.

But health chiefs have urged those with symptoms to contact their GP. 

Berenice Groves, deputy chief executive and chief operating officer of the Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, says: “Despite the challenges and the huge amounts of improvement work we’re undergoing, the message is clear – if people do have signs or symptoms of cancer, we are actively encouraging them to contact their GP.

“This is a message we need to reach everybody, especially to prevent the worsening of health inequalities which remain a priority for us.

“We can all help this situation by ensuring we are able to treat the most poorly people, who need us the most.

“This can mean not coming to our emergency department unless your need is a true emergency and life threatening as well as assisting in helping get patients home from hospital, when safe to do so.

“We’re working hard, across the system and in line with national best practice, to ensure we are continuing to do everything we can to improve the situation and ensure patients get access to their cancer care as soon as possible. 

The main entrance to Chesterfield Royal Hospital
Credit: Daniela Loffreda

The inability of NHS Trusts and Foundation Trusts to hit cancer waiting time targets is not unique to Derbyshire. 

In April 2022, Sky News reported that targets for cancer treatment were missed in 98 per cent of NHS England areas in January. 

But the figures do little to encourage cancer patients in Derbyshire, particularly as referral rates for the UHDB Foundation Trust reached 76 per cent in March 2020, and peaked at 79 per cent in July the same year.

Various cancer charities have now called for government intervention on the issue, branding the current waiting times as unacceptable. 

Ruth Willis, Macmillan strategic partnership manager for the East Midlands, says: “This data confirms the huge challenge still facing the NHS and we know this will be having a devastating impact on many people with cancer who are experiencing agonising delays and risk a worse prognosis.

“The government must set out a plan to urgently support the NHS, so it has the staff and resources needed to tackle the cancer care backlog and ensure everybody gets the care they need now and in the future.” 

Such concerns are echoed by Cancer Research UK. 

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of the research charity, adds: “Despite the tireless work of NHS staff, performance against targets has again hit a record low. 

“More people than ever before are facing unacceptably long waits for vital cancer tests and treatment.

“Winter pressures and Omicron combined have only added weight to a historically overburdened NHS, but staff shortages were holding down efforts to improve cancer survival well before this. 

“For years, we’ve been waiting for a long-term plan to train more staff, a lack of which has contributed to this situation.

“Each day we continue to wait for the government to allocate the money promised to the NHS back in October, is a day less for the NHS to plan.

“Meanwhile, people are waiting for vital tests and cancer patients are waiting for treatments.”

While many organisations call for government intervention, it is clear that frustrations continue to grow as an overburdened NHS desperately seeks for ways to combat the rapidly deteriorating situation. 

But with the coronavirus still very much a part of our lives, there is still some way to go.