• Health and social care secretary warned People Plan is set to omit key details on staffing
  • Current proposals would not improve care and waiting time problems, say cancer charities
  • NHSE says it relies on government issuing multiyear funding plans

The government has been warned that current NHS People Plan proposals will not solve serious problems in cancer care because they don’t go far enough in making commitments to growing staff numbers, HSJ has learned. 

Several large cancer charities, including Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support, wrote to Matt Hancock this week to raise urgent concerns about the People Plan work, they confirmed to HSJ.

It comes as NHS England and Improvement press government to set a “multiyear funding envelope” for training in next month’s Budget, saying this would enable them to publish robust plans for increasing staffing. There are growing tensions at the centre over workforce, with HSJ revealing the Department of Health and Social Care has criticised aspects of NHSE’s plan for expanding nursing numbers by 50,000 — a high-profile government commitment.

The cancer charities have seen recent drafts of proposals for cancer services to go in the People Plan, and say in their letter that, without significant extra detail on staffing numbers, they won’t stop care “suffering and cancer waiting times… soaring”.

The NHS People Plan is due to be published in the next two months, after the government’s 11 March Budget statement, following multiple delays. But if the government sets no multiyear NHS training budget, the plan may not include details of new staffing increases, instead focusing on areas like retention.

The charities’ letter says the current proposals need more detail and to commit to greater numbers of staff, in particular oncologists, diagnostic staff, and clinical nurse specialists in cancer care, HSJ was told.

At present, some key cancer outcomes in England are worse than peer countries, with many people diagnosed later than they should be, while target waiting times for cancer tests are being missed.

Cancer Research UK’s director of policy, Emma Greenwood, said: “We expect to see clear targets and actions for the health service so that it can start addressing staffing issues in cancer.

“We’ve been waiting years for a long-term cancer workforce plan that ensures the NHS has the staff it needs to diagnose and treat patients quickly. But while we wait, patient care is suffering and cancer waiting times are soaring — it’s unacceptable. The secretary of state for health and social care must ensure the [People Plan] contains clear targets for increasing the cancer workforce over the coming years.”

Macmillan Cancer Support head of policy Sara Bainbridge said: “Quality, personalised cancer care depends on a huge range of hard working healthcare professionals. But a system held together by overtime and goodwill is simply not sustainable — we desperately need more staff.

“We need proper investment in the workforce if we are to see every patient receive the care and support they need. There are around 7,000 new cancer patients a week and we need the government to take its commitments to these individuals seriously.”

An NHS England and Improvement spokeswoman said: “Once the government has set the multiyear funding envelope for expanded education and training for core health roles including cancer care, the forthcoming People Plan will be able to set out how NHS staffing will expand in line with rising patient demand over the next five years.”

This indicates no commitments will be made on numbers until the government sets this budget — which it could do in next month’s Budget, but may wait until a spending review later in the year.

The DHSC pointed to several moves it had taken to improve workforce, including for cancer, in recent years, and a spokesman added: “People with cancer deserve the best possible care and we are working to detect more cancers at an earlier stage to save an estimated 55,000 lives every year as part of the NHS long term plan.

“Our dedicated workforce are essential to achieve this – we’re committed to delivering 50,000 more nurses by 2025, 200 clinical endoscopists by 2021 to increase our capacity for earlier diagnosis and we have 900 more diagnostic radiographers in our NHS compared to 2017.”