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NHS cancer services plunged into worst winter on record new BMA report warns

BMA press release: Embargo 00.01hrs Thursday 2 May

NHS cancer services plunged into worst winter on record as patients left waiting weeks for treatment, warns new BMA report

Doctors’ leaders have warned that thousands of cancer patients were left waiting weeks for treatment this winter according to the NHS’s own data. New BMA analysis1 also revealed that other key parts of hospital care in England missed critical targets by the largest margin on record.

Writing separately for the BMA2, an anonymous emergency care doctor describes wards “bursting with patients awaiting beds” and how “when a critically ill patient arrives now I’m not sure where I’ll put them.”

The new BMA analysis, NHS Pressures – Winter 2018/19; A Hidden Crisis, uses NHS England figures3 to examine the performance of the NHS during recent winters and over the long term. Key findings include:

Cancer treatment services

  • Almost a quarter of cancer patients had to wait more than two months for their first treatment after an urgent referral by a GP, with only 76.2 per cent being seen within the 62 days; well below the 85 per cent target. This is the worst performance on record. Overall, 6,240 people were waiting beyond the target, a 39 per cent rise on last year.
  • The number of people waiting to see a cancer specialist for more than 21 days rose to a historic high of 8,820, up from 5,099 last winter, an increase of 73 per cent.
  • Between January and February 2019, the NHS failed to meet its target of 93 per cent of patients being seen by a cancer specialist within two weeks of referral for the first time in a winter period, registering 92.5 per cent. The NHS has now missed the two-week target for nine of the last twelve months.
  • The number of patients needing help rose by 17 per cent.
  • Overall, more than a third (36 per cent) of NHS providers missed the two-week target in January 2019, up 15 percentage points on the same period last year.

Emergency care

  • A record 6.2 million patients visited major emergency care departments this winter.
  • Almost one in four patients were left waiting more than four hours to be seen at major emergency care units and 214,000 were left on trolleys waiting more than four hours to be seen after being admitted. This is the second worst performance quarter on record.
  • Overall, 85.1 per cent of patients were seen within the four-hour target, only 0.1 per cent better than the worst figures on record last winter.
  • February 2019 was the single worst month since records began with only 75.7 per cent of patients at major accident and emergency departments being seen within the required target time.

Hospital care

  • The total number of patients waiting for operations and further care rose to a record 4.3 million in February 2019 with the average wait for an operation now at close to seven weeks.
  • Between 3 December 2018 and 3 March 2019, 93 per cent of beds in the NHS were occupied, only marginally down from last year. The NHS itself has said that bed occupancy above 92 per cent results in a serious negative impact on patient care.

 BMA council chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said:

 “Behind these statistics, which show the NHS plunged deeper into crisis this winter, are stories of real lives in distress. Forcing a patient to wait two months for their first cancer treatment is shameful for a leading nation and as a doctor, I can imagine only too well the distress this will cause to them and their families. It also places stress on the clinicians who treat them as they are well aware that the cancer may have worsened during the delay between referral and treatment.

“The Government needs to realise that the crisis in the NHS is not going away as our health service struggles in an underfunded and understaffed environment against a backdrop of rising patient demand. We need urgently to ensure that the NHS is provided with the 10,000 extra beds its needs and that funding is brought up to levels enjoyed by other leading Western European countries, a target that will not be reached under the Government’s recently announced Long Term Plan for the NHS. ”

BMA patient liaison group chair, Amanda Cool, said:

“When a patient receives a cancer diagnosis it is devastating. What that individual need is rapid, urgent assessment to ensure they get the treatment they need. These latest figures show that thousands of patients are being left in limbo and that the NHS is now missing its own targets across the board.

“The Government needs to urgently examine why this is happening and put in place measures that gives patients the high level of care they deserve.”


Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. A copy of the BMA’s NHS Pressures – Winter 2018/19; A Hidden Crisis is attached and can be found here when embargo is lifted - please note this report is under strict embargo until 00.01 hours Thursday 2 May.
  2. The BMA blog can be read here and is written anonymously by an emergency care doctor working in England.
  3. For this analysis, the winter refers to January to March for emergency and hospital care, while the cancer service examination the winter refers to January to February, as March 2019 figures are not yet available.
  4. The BMA has produced a regional snapshot of the key performance indicators for February 2019 contained in the report (See table below). The indicators denote those regions where the local performance fall below the national average.
  5. Overall the NHS has a target of 95 per cent being seen within four hours at emergency care department, 93 percent of cancer patients to be seen within two weeks of an urgent referral by a GP and 85% of cancer patients to be treated within 62 days of the referral.
  1. Additional anonymised quotes from doctors recounting their experience of recent pressures are attached.

For media enquiries please email [email protected] or call 020 7383 6448



Patients seen in 4 hours or less

Patients spending more than 4 in emergency care waiting for treatment

Patients spending more than 12 hours in emergency care

Percentage of patients seen by a cancer specialist with 2 weeks of GP urgent referral

Percentage of cancer patients treated within 62 days of GP urgent referral







East Midlands












North East






North West






South Central






South East






South West






West Midlands






Yorkshire and The Humber















For further information please contact:

British Medical Association, BMA House, Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9JP
Telephone: 020 7383 6448 
Email: [email protected]
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