Sikora
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Karol Sikora
This cancer crisis is the predictable consequence of the NHS focusing exclusively on Covid-19

During the pandemic, I wrote for this newspaper an article entitled "Why can't just one of these endless press conferences be dedicated to non-Covid related illnesses?" Perhaps naively, I thought it might be a suggestion which the Government would take up. Virtually cost-free, an uncontroversial subject and very little downside: why wouldn't they do it, I thought? The idea received a warm response on Twitter. Others clearly shared the same view. I'm certain it was seen by the army of bureaucrats working on pandemic communications, yet nothing came of it.

Instead, those valuable hours were spent justifying ludicrous policies, dishing out patronising lectures and terrifying the country into submission with apocalyptic scenarios. I vividly remember a Brigadier, dressed in military fatigues, explaining with the help of a stick how he was building emergency Covid hospitals. All very impressive until he was asked who would staff them. It was clear that the Government wanted to be seen to be doing "something", rather than actually aiming to consistently and instructively inform. It was pure theatre.

There were hundreds of these broadcasts, but not a single one focused on non-Covid conditions. I guarantee that scotch eggs were mentioned more times than cancer. It was all the more grating considering what was happening behind closed doors in No 10. "Wine Time Fridays" were presumably higher on the agenda than the emerging cancer crisis.

I look back with anger and bewilderment, especially given the scale of the crisis we're now experiencing in oncology. Predictably, figures leaked to the Health Service Journal show that over 300,000 people are on England's cancer waiting list, with almost 40,000 waiting more than 62 days after a GP referral for suspected cancer. Over 10,000 are waiting more than 104 days, double the number in June 2021. Oncologists in other countries simply cannot believe that these numbers are true - it's just unthinkable.

In reality, getting a GP appointment is such a hurdle that many give up. That's a controversial statement in some corners of the medical community, but it's undoubtedly true. People are made to feel like a burden or spend hours in phone queues when the demands of everyday life don't allow for that. Whatever the reasons, the system is broken.

These are just the people that are coming forward. What about the tens of thousands that have a tumour developing in some part of their body but who have not sought medical treatment? Every day it goes undetected, their chances of survival drop as cancer spreads faster than the unachieved target waiting times. Thousands will die. Many already have.

Anyone doubting the severity of the cancer crisis should look at the emails I receive from desperate patients. This isn't some hypothetical projection; it is a living nightmare for many. I honestly don't know what the solution is. To be frank, there isn't a complete one - certainly not in the short term. It's a complete and utter disaster.

What happens when the country goes into recession, in part thanks to the legacy of the lockdowns? My children and grandchildren will be paying for our pandemic spending long after I'm gone. That means less money for cancer services and that means yet more unnecessary suffering.

But those of us who made these arguments at the time were labelled as irresponsible killers. We received waves of abuse for daring to suggest that the consequences of lockdown may be worth considering. In terms of our children's welfare, non-Covid health issues, the economic aftermath - the list could go on. I am angry about it. Non-Covid excess deaths are soaring above average, indicating that the delayed diagnoses and treatments for a variety of diseases are now sadly catching up with people.

We failed a generation of children - many of whom are now overweight, unable to talk or are struggling with tasks expected of their age. It's a damning pandemic legacy which shames all of us.

Any recovery will take decades, perhaps longer. For some, it will never come. Treating a stage one tumour comes with a huge chance of success. But stage three or four? It can drop to around 10 per cent survival and that can happen over months, not years. Numerous mums, dads, friends and colleagues have already paid the ultimate price for these delays.

While politicians were fiddling around putting counties in different "tiers" or imagining ever more ludicrous ways to destroy the hospitality industry, thousands of people were putting off getting a symptom checked. Would one press conference have made a difference? Who knows, but it certainly would have started a desperately needed conversation and signalled a change in Government thinking.

The cynic in me suspects that those who were driving lockdowns were reluctant to openly discuss the adverse consequences of the policy on such a powerful platform as those conferences. If anyone has a more reasonable or believable explanation, I'm all ears.
About the Author:
Professor Karol Sikora has been a consultant oncologist for 44 years and was a past director of the WHO Cancer Programme.