Steve Barclay has agreed to meet a leading oncology professor in an effort to help bring down the cancer backlog.
The Health Secretary said he was “very happy” to hold talks with Pat Price amid concerns the government is failing to increase treatment capacity.
Prof Price, who is the chair of Radiotherapy UK and co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign, is one of the country’s leading cancer experts.
The talks come as a welcome boost to the Daily Express radiotherapy campaign, which both charities back.
Mr Barclay and NHS leaders have been warned against proposals to “fiddle around with targets” for cancer care instead of boosting treatment capacity.
The Health Secretary hinted that revised targets were imminent, acknowledging that the government had been “consulting on changes”.
“Any changes will be those where it’s been requested by clinical specialists within the cancer field and will be in consultation with the leading cancer charities,” he told BBC Radio 4.
But Prof Price criticised the prospect of changes. “Is it really the best the government and senior NHS leaders can do, is fiddle around with targets in the midst of this crisis?,” she told the programme.
She added: “The clear and simple truth is that we are not investing enough in cancer treatment capacity”.
Prof Price said that she and colleagues had “some very good ideas of how we can increase this capacity, get some wins quickly, move this dial”, but that Mr Barclay had refused to meet them, despite “many” requests.
Asked about Prof Price’s claim, Barclay said he was “very happy to have a meeting with them”.
At present, there are 10 key cancer performance targets, but many have not been met for a long time. Last year, researchers found that the UK lagged many comparable countries in cancer survival rates.
Cancer Research UK, a charity, previously backed the proposed changes, arguing they amounted to a more meaningful set of targets that should lead to improvements in diagnosis.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, said the proposals had been “put forward by leading cancer experts” and would make sure “more patients are diagnosed and treated as early as possible”.
“The proposals will also remove the need for unnecessary outpatient appointments in order to comply with waiting times rules, allowing more patients to be referred ‘straight to test’ and the wider deployment of diagnostic technologies including artificial intelligence,” he added.
The Daily Express radiotherapy campaign is demanding new machines to handle rising cancer rates, satellite centres to slash journey times and more radiotherapists to break the cancer backlog. To do this the service will need a £1billion boost over five years.