Providers have breached the waiting time target for patients with suspected cancer starting treatment within 62 days following urgent GP referral for the first time since the target was introduced in 2009.

This is the first breach of any cancer waiting time target since the introduction of the current standards.

Out of 158 providers, 60 failed to meet the target.

The latest data from NHS England, covering January – February, shows that only 84.4 per cent of cancer patients started treatment within 62 days, 0.6 per cent below the 85 per cent target.

While breast cancer and skin cancer patients on the whole began treatment promptly – with 96.6 per cent and 96.2 per cent treated respectively, performance against target slumped considerably for patients with lung cancer, lower gastrointestinal cancer and urological cancers.

Only 76.8 per cent of lower gastrointestinal cancer patients began treatment within 62 days, while 78.2 per cent of lung cancer patients and 78.7 per cent of urological cancer patients were treated.

All other cancer waiting time targets were met, however performance worsened across the majority of targets compared to the data for October – December 2013.

Trusts that have struggled to meet the target said this was due to an increase in referrals, late referrals from other providers and a shortage of clinicians for some pathways.

Mike Hobday, director of policy and research at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is of great concern that the number of trusts missing this target has doubled over the last year. Around one in four of the trusts that were hitting the target at the start of 2013/14 are now missing the target. This is the first breach of any cancer waiting time in England since 2009 and is a clear warning sign that the NHS is under huge strain.

“The UK already has some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe. More patients are now facing delays, which means more patients are facing anxiety for longer and more lives are being put at risk. We’re very worried that the coordination of cancer care is getting worse and that cancer is being overlooked in the new NHS.”

NHS England’s national clinical director for cancer, Sean Duffy, said: “It is vital cancer patients are diagnosed and treated quickly so they have the best possible chance of recovery. Latest figures show nationally the NHS has met and exceeded seven out of eight cancer waiting time standards.  But there is variation in meeting the challenging standards, and national performance against one of the targets has dipped.

“CCG commissioners are working together with local providers where the standard is not being met to identify the issues to ensure patients are treated in a timely way.”

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “The NHS is treating more cancer patients than ever — since 2009, we’ve seen the number rise by 15 per cent. We want the NHS to have the very best cancer services in the world, and are investing £750 million to support early diagnosis and access to treatment. The NHS should look urgently at any dips in local performance and take action to make sure all patients get access to cancer treatment as quickly as possible.”

Dr Johnathan Joffe, chair of the Association of Cancer Physicians and chair of the Joint Collegiate Council for Oncology, said the current cancer targets were too “crude”. He argued that the current measures fail to recognise the varying complexity between different pathways. He said: “What the system doesn’t recognise is that cancer pathways are different. Clinical reference groups should look at the targets and see if they can be made more meaningful. It’s no good if they just penalise people.”

The trust development authority’s chief executive David Flory recently expressed concern over trusts’ performance against the 62 day target.

A spokesman for the TDA said it would be pairing poorly performing providers with the highest performers “so that everyone can share and benefit from the best and most up-to-date practice.”