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Radiotherapy is a vital treatment that can reduce unnecessary cancer deaths during the coronavirus pandemic

Radiotherapy provides a clear and immediate solution to government's challenge to prevent cancer deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, says Tim Farron MP.

4 min read

A radiotherapy taskforce led by a government minister will save ‘collateral’ cancer lives from the Covid-19 pandemic

The Government cannot have failed to see the same reports as the rest of us about the potentially tragic numbers of cancer deaths that will occur as a result of the understandable NHS focus on fighting the pandemic. However, this nightmare scenario is avoidable, but only if the Government listen and act quickly.  Radiotherapy is already a vital treatment option playing a part in 4 out of every 10 cancer cures.  It doesn’t require Intensive Care resources as surgery does and doesn’t suppress immunity as chemotherapy and immunotherapy tend to do.  These characteristics make it the best treatment option for cancer patients to continue their treatment in the current situation.  The case for radiotherapy to be at the heart of our efforts to reduce unnecessary cancer deaths is overwhelming. Boosting radiotherapy services has the potential to save many of the cancer patients whose lives are at increased risk due to their treatment being delayed, disrupted or cancelled without impacting on the overall Covid-19 response.  But delivering such a boost in the timescale required will need a similar degree of energy and focus to that being deployed against the pandemic itself.

That’s why the APPG on Radiotherapy is calling for the establishment of a National Task Force to deliver this boost to radiotherapy services. To be successful, it will require support at Ministerial level. It would need to encompass the whole of the NHS radiotherapy sector, industry, and the private sector. Delay in developing such a solution will result in unnecessary deaths.

The message that we are receiving from radiotherapy professionals suggests that far from being boosted, the opposite is happening. Radiotherapy services are being badly affected by a whole range of issues including lack of PPE and machines lying unused. This week we, alongside the Blood Cancer APPG, submitted evidence to the Health and Social Care Select Committee to highlight the extent of the problem. And most importantly to demonstrate to Government that a solution is available if they are willing to listen. As part of our evidence, we submitted the results of a flash inquiry which included a survey of over 300 radiotherapy professionals. The findings should be of great concern to policy makers as we have heard of a lack of understanding of the issues faced by radiotherapy services, fear and anxiety over levels of PPE and frustration over advanced radiotherapy treatments being restricted, even though centres have machines capable of delivering it.

The APPG for Radiotherapy's secretariat, the charity Action Radiotherapy, have published the results of this survey which show half of radiotherapy professionals have seen up to two thirds of treatments disrupted at a time when they should be boosted. 69 per cent felt NHS managers did not understand the impact of Covid-19 on treatments where practitioners are working centimetres away from vulnerable cancer patients. Further, only 32 per cent of the frontline workforce felt they had access to full and appropriate levels of PPE. Professionals have been clear with their concerns: As one responder to the survey said ‘Labelling NHS workers as “heroes” cannot lead to inaction and an acceptance of an inadequate response. It is essential the Government know what is happening on the ground and act fast’.

Our findings show that radiotherapy provides a clear and immediate solution to government's challenge to prevent cancer deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic. Under a number of governments, radiotherapy has been treated as a Cinderella service - subject to an inexcusable level of under investment and restrictions which has consequently held back the treatment from delivering on its potential. If we listen to the simple available solutions offered by radiotherapy professionals today we can save lives and avoid a “double tragedy” as a result of Covid-19 in the future.

Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale and chair of the APPG for Radiotherapy.

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