• Hunt urged to double cancer budget to £15bn by senior NHS figures
  • Targets for early diagnosis floated in high-level discussions
  • Early diagnosis focus would be welcomed, says senior cancer figures

Jeremy Hunt wants an ambitious cancer pledge to be a core plank of the government’s new NHS plan, with senior figures pushing for the service’s £7.5bn cancer budget to be doubled over the longer term, HSJ understands.

Senior sources told HSJ the health secretary wants a “big promise” to address the NHS’s poor cancer outcomes which lag significantly behind comparable health systems. HSJ understands high-level talks have focused on driving up early diagnosis, rather than the traditional NHS emphasis on treatment times.

Insiders said new targets on pushing up the number of cancer diagnoses made at stages one and two, from circa 50 per cent up to as much as around 80 per cent had been floated in discussions.

Mr Hunt has also been urged by some senior NHS figures to pledge to double the cancer budget over the longer term to around £15bn.

Much of the increase in the cancer budget will be driven by significant demand growth, so the real terms budget increase would actually be far less impressive, according to HSJ’s sources, who urged caution around the figures.

But there is a belief it would signal a firm commitment, and be a good sell to the Treasury and voters, who will want to see tangible benefits in return for greater investment.

The news follows Mr Hunt holding numerous roundtables with system leaders and senior local NHS chiefs following the prime minister’s commitment to a new long term plan in March.

A government announcement on the plan’s headline ambitions is expected in the coming weeks before the NHS’s 70th birthday on 5 July.

However, with significant questions still surrounding the overall spending envelope for the plan, and pleas from the sector for a pragmatic roadmap which acknowledges the existing pressures, no formal decisions have been made.

A focus on early diagnosis would be supported by the NHS cancer leadership community, both in terms of delivering better patient outcomes and saving money long term, according to one of the sector’s most respected figures.

Roger Spencer, chief executive of leading cancer hospital The Christie Foundation Trust, told HSJ the good work on treatment times “must continue, of course…[but] if we could bring the same level of performance management and scrutiny to early diagnosis we could make a huge impact on outcomes, and save money in the long term”.

“If we could shift about 25 per cent of patients diagnosed at late stage into an early stage diagnosis, that may give us the possibility of having survival rates that are equal to or better than the best in Europe,” he added.

Asked about a target to diagnose 80 per cent of cancers at an early stage, he said “this may be possible, but it is almost impossible to model”.

He said earlier diagnosis would require significant action across the system, particularly in screening and primary care and a large increase in diagnostic capacity.

Mike Birtwistle, a senior cancer policy expert, said the move would be welcomed by the “patients, clinicians and the public”.

He said: ”Earlier diagnosis has the potential to save lives as well as money, so action in this area would be popular, effective and prudent.

”The collection of staging data has improved significantly which means that a stage of diagnosis target is workable proposition. Measuring this would not have the time lag associated with measuring survival, so it could provide more useful information for health services to act upon.”

The Department of Health and Social Care has not responded to an invitation for comment.