The must-read stories and debate in health policy and leadership.

A key part of the government’s considerations on lockdown measures has been the extent to which the NHS will be able to continue treating non-covid patients.

There are heightened concerns around cancer care, which was badly disrupted in the first wave of the virus, and has still not fully recovered.

NHS England routinely publishes activity data and waiting times for cancer treatment, but does not make the size of the overall waiting list publicly available.

However, an internal slide deck set seen by HSJ suggests the total number of patients waiting for cancer treatment on the 62-day pathway in England has increased from around 90,000 in mid-May to around 160,000 at the start of December.

Thankfully, the number of longer waiters (those who have already breached the 62-day standard) have declined over that period after being targeted first. But the numbers further behind on the list have rocketed, leaving the NHS with a huge workload over the coming months.

Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, said: “While access to cancer services have been protected more than other non-covid services, the pandemic has still had a worrying impact on waiting lists…

“Alongside the growing number of covid-19 cases and rising pressure on NHS hospital services, coupled with staff shortages, cancer services will once again become difficult to maintain which will leave these patients waiting longer or starting treatment with greater care needs.”

If the surge in covid admissions to hospital continues over Christmas and into January, there is a significant risk of further disruption to cancer care, with that waiting list potentially looking even more ominous in a few months’ time.

A call to action

HSJ made its own headlines today after publication of a joint editorial with The BMJ, only the second such article in their more than hundred-year history.

”We are publishing it because we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives. If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be ‘protecting the NHS.’”

The error in question relates to the rules around households mixing at Christmas. Find out the many reasons they believe policy could spell disaster for the NHS and its staff, and what they ask the government to do instead, here.