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Cancer gap with Europe 'not closed'

More than a decade after the last government launched its NHS Cancer Plan and almost five years after its Cancer Reform Strategy, the gap in survival rates between England and the best-performing European countries has not closed, a parliamentary report has said.

According to Department of Health estimates, 10,000 lives could be saved each year if the NHS in England matched the best in Europe, said the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Key priorities for improving survival were improved public and GP awareness of the symptoms of cancer and earlier diagnosis, but there were "significant gaps" in the information gathered by the NHS about important aspects of cancer services.

While mortality rates have fallen and survival rates improved over the past decade, there remained "wide, unexplained variations" in performance around England, said the report.

The Cancer Plan in 2000 was launched during Tony Blair's premiership, with a promise to deliver "the fastest improving cancer services in Europe" with extra doctors and equipment, shorter waiting times and more government cash for research. The 2007 Reform Strategy aimed to refocus the effort through prevention, early diagnosis and access to cost-effective treatments.

NHS spending on cancer rose to £6.3 billion a year by 2008/09, and the PAC report said there had been "significant progress in delivering important aspects of cancer services, with falling mortality rates and consistent achievement of the cancer waiting times targets".

Since 2007, "improvements have also been made in reducing the average length of stay and numbers of patients treated as day cases". The report welcomed a "significant increase in resources" committed to cancer and the "clear direction and high-profile leadership" offered.

But the cross-party PAC added: "We are concerned ... that early diagnosis does not happen often enough; whilst cancer survival rates have improved and mortality rates have fallen, the gap in survival rates between England and the best European countries has not been closed. There remain wide, unexplained variations in the performance of cancer services and in the types of treatment available across the country."

Care services minister Paul Burstow said: "This report shows exactly why we need to update the NHS. It is unacceptable that under Labour our cancer survival rates lag way behind our European neighbours, when we spend the equivalent amount on healthcare.

"If the NHS was performing at the level of the best in Europe, an extra 10,000 lives could be saved each year. The coalition Government has taken swift action to help improve cancer survival rates since May last year."

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