Why the NHS Cancer Backlog Will Not be Cleared Until 2027

Amancay Tapia

Photo by Anna Tarazevich/Pexels

In England, NHS cancer patients may have to wait up to five years to receive treatment. This has been revealed after the cancer support charity, Macmillan, warned that it will take until September 2027 to clear the backlog.

The charity estimates 32,000 fewer patients than expected have started their first treatment in the two years since the start of the pandemic. The main reasons which have been cited for these delays in the diagnosis of cancer, and subsequent treatment, include external NHS pressures and the Covid Pandemic. Below we delve deeper and explore all the reasons there is an NHS backlog for cancer treatment.

The Pandemic Causing an NHS Backlog

The words ‘because of Covid’ are very familiar ones to most of us, and have been used to explain away everything from a shortage of goods and supplies to The Great Resignation. Whilst, these may be considered a concern, they pale in comparison to the NHS cancer backlog.

COVID-19 put immense pressure on the NHS with staffing shortages and reduced services, coupled with a growing demand of people needing to be seen. As a result, many cancer patients suffered as they could not access the care they so desperately needed. And, with reduced GP services, many people with cancer symptoms were either put off going for an appointment or could simply not get one.

The UK Government’s Actions in the NHS Backlog

Whilst the Pandemic is the most popular cited reason for the backlog, many argue the UK’s government’s budget cuts and overall lack of spending for cancer research and treatment is also a reason for the backlog.


In the UK, over 166,00 people lose their lives to cancer every year, equating to around 450 per day. Whilst some cancers are more aggressive than others, in many cases, early diagnosis can significantly improve a patient’s life expectancy.

For this reason, the UK government spends a considerable amount of money every year on advertising aimed at encouraging people to get checked out if they are experiencing symptoms which may be cancer related. Whilst this seems good on paper, there have been a number of criticisms of the UK government for not spending enough on the NHS, who are instrumental in cancer research and treatment, as well as cancer research organisations.

Government Spending on Cancer Research

According to recent parliamentary publications, the total annual UK Government spending for cancer research is £112 million. Whilst this figure seems high on paper, it is low compared to other countries government spending on cancer research. The UK’s spend per cancer patient is 20% less than in the top five EU countries and 20% less in terms of total health budget than all of the EU countries.

Cancer researchers also receive far more support from research charities and the pharmaceutical industry in the UK than the government. The two largest cancer research charities, the ICRF and the CRC, between them spend more money on cancer research than the UK Government.

NHS Cuts

Between 2015-2029, the budget for public health services in England was cut by £850 million. Since then, the government have also reduced the NHS revenue budget for 2022-2023 by £330 million. These cuts have led to a strain on the NHS, with longer waiting periods, staff shortages and patients not being seen or being treated efficiently.

What is the Government Doing to Tackle the NHS Cancer Backlog?

The UK government has recently announced a 10-year cancer plan. The plan, which has been described as ‘a war on cancer’, includes partnerships with various tech companies. Its goal is to harness data and innovation for cancer detection and to transform the patient experience by 2032.
The Rt Hon Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said of the plan, “I want us to pursue every possible opportunity to partner with this country’s tech pioneer’s, who had such a decisive impact during the pandemic, so we can harness and deploy the technologies that offer so much hope.This also includes improving the number of people who are diagnosed at an early stage, boosting the cancer workforce, intensifying research on mRNA vaccines for cancer and delivering more personalised care both before and after treatment.”

Concerns Over the New Cancer Plan

Whilst the plan appears promising, it has been revealed by Macmillan that a minimum of 30,000 UK residents are still waiting for vital cancer treatment, with many more awaiting diagnoses. Analysis by the charity concluded that, unless the government takes urgent action on cancer treatment in England, the current backlog could realistically drag on until 2027.

It is statistics like these which lead MacMillan to believe that cancer patients are likely to face an unacceptable five year wait for treatment which, for many people, will simply be too late. MacMillan’s Chief Executive, Lynda Thomas, says, “New research shows the backlog is worse than we originally predicted and the reason for that is we are simply not clearing it fast rough. To see that we won’t be through it now until 2027 is completely unacceptable.”

While Ms. Thomas accepts that the unprecedented pressure on the NHS caused by the pandemic is certainly a factor, she maintains that many of the problems faced by cancer patients precede the COVID-19 crisis.

Staffing Shortages


In addition to the pressures posed by the pandemic, the NHS has also, in recent times, experienced serious staffing issues, with many vital roles being filled by temporary workers. One factor which has added to this problem is a general disillusionment among staff regarding pay and conditions, with many choosing to seek alternative employment, often within private healthcare.

According to Macmillan, these staffing issues have resulted in targets not being met. One such target is the government’s pledge that 75% of patients will be seen, diagnosed and referred for treatment within 62 days of the initial referral. Macmillan claims that this target has not once been met and that rates have, instead, deteriorated.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care responded to MacMillan’s claims, stating,“Our plan to tackle the Covid backlog and reduce cancer waiting times includes rolling out up to 160 community diagnostic centres across the country with 88 already open and over 800,000 scans delivered. And our record investment in the NHS will help deliver an extra nine million checks, scans and operations by 2025.”

Why is There a Cancer Backlog?

Staffing shortages, increased waiting times, and reduced services have all had a devasting effect on cancer patients receiving treatment. Whilst the pandemic undoubtedly caused an immense strain on the NHS and cancer research, many people also believe the UK government’s lack of funding caused huge pressure on these services.However, some remain hopeful of the government’s 10-year pledge to improve cancer research and treatment.

If you or a loved one is currently battling cancer, you are not alone and there are many charities out there, such as Cancer support UK and Marie Curie, that can offer support and information. If you are displaying any symptoms of cancer, then speak to a GP immediately.

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