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An update on the workforce plan

In this blog, we’ll explore what the new workforce plan means for breast cancer patients and how we got there.

Following months of campaigning by Breast Cancer Now supporters, the government has committed to publishing the NHS long-term workforce plan in full, alongside independently verified forecasts for the number of staff needed in 5, 10 and 15 years’ times. In this blog, we’ll explore how we got there and what it will mean for breast cancer patients.

A year of pressure

From breast screening and diagnostic services to the doctors and nurses who provide treatment and care – the breast cancer workforce remains under critical pressure, with shortages amongst staff needed to deliver vital services. The Government needed to take urgent action to address this problem and ensure we have enough NHS staff to provide breast cancer care.

That’s why, in November 2021, we joined a coalition of more than 100 health organisations, including Royal College of Radiologists, Cancer Research UK, Macmillan and the Health Foundation to call for better workforce planning.

Together, we proposed an amendment to the Government’s Health and Care Bill. This called for the government to publish assessments of staff numbers, as well as assessments for the future numbers needed to meet the needs of patients. We believed this would help the government develop a better plan to ensure the appropriate resources were in place.

This amendment was debated in the House of Commons, where a number of MPs made the case for its adoption. This included the former chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Cancer, who shared the story of one of our supporters, Laura Ashurst. However, despite strong cross-party support, the amendment was sadly rejected.

In the House of Lords, the amendment won support among peers, and returned to the House of Commons. To help secure as much backing from MPs, more than 3,000 Breast Cancer Now supporters wrote to their MPs asking them to back the amendment. Unfortunately, the amendment was not pushed to a second vote in the Commons.

However recent changes in Government presented a new opportunity to call for the workforce plan to be published in full, including numbers of how many staff will be needed to keep pace with demand, alongside a commitment to provide the necessary funding.

The #StrengthInNumbers coalition wrote to the newly appointed Chancellor Jeremy Hunt who had been a key supporter of the amendment, urging him to deliver a workforce plan as part of his autumn statement.

Announcing a comprehensive plan

During his autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that a “comprehensive” NHS workforce plan would be published by the government next year.

This plan will include “independently verified forecasts for the number of doctors, nurses and other professionals that will be needed in five, 10 and 15 years’ time”, in line with our original recommendations.

The news was a huge achievement, so thank you once again to everyone who helped make it a reality.

What does this mean for breast cancer patients?

One of the greatest challenges facing breast cancer right now is staff shortages and it’s only set to get worse, with 45% of breast cancer clinical oncologists due to retire in England within the next 10 years. As one of the most highly demanded specialists, they play a pivotal role in delivering core cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Also 23% of breast consultant radiologists are due to retire in England by 2026.  The gaps in the diagnostic workforce will be contributing to the increased numbers of people waiting longer than two weeks to see and specialist for an urgent breast cancer referral.  Worryingly this risks undermining early diagnosis which we know is crucial as the sooner breast cancer is diagnosed the better the chances of treatment being successful.

By identifying the number of staff required to deliver key services, it can help decision-makers ensure that appropriate resources are in place to recruit and retain them, which should avert similar workforce shortages from arising again in the future.

What’s next?

We’re urging the Government to commit to a detailed timeline for publishing the NHS workforce plan, with forecasts, alongside the new 10 year cancer plan.

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