The proportion of people in England having their first cancer treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral has fallen further below NHS targets, new data has revealed.

Figures published by NHS England show 58.7% of cancer patients having their first treatment in May waited less than two months after being referred by their GP, down from 61.0% in April.

The target is 85% and the last time this was met on a monthly basis was in December 2015 (85.1%).

Annually, the performance target was last met in 2013/14, when it reached 86%.

Meanwhile, 71.3% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer in May were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days, unchanged from the previous month.

By March 2024, the NHS is aiming for 75% of patients who have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer to be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days.

GPs in England made 245,595 urgent cancer referrals in May, up 13% on 218,060 in April and up slightly (0.1%) year-on-year from 245,449 in May 2022.

The proportion of cancer patients who saw a specialist within two weeks rose from 77.7% in April to 80.8% in May but remained below the target of 93%, which was last met in May 2020.

In the week ending May 28, 23,499 patients had waited longer than 62 days since an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer, up from 22,533 in the week ending April 30.

While most people included in the total do not have cancer and are waiting diagnostic tests, one in seven do have cancer and are awaiting treatment.

Oncologist Professor Pat Price, founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign and chairwoman of Radiotherapy UK, described the figures as a “comprehensive catalogue of cancer failures”.

She said: “The tragedy for patients is that constant failure against key targets is becoming the new norm.

“Surely those in charge must now see that we need a screeching U-turn on cancer that must surely include a cancer specific plan backed by investment in treatment capacity.”

Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “This data shows yet again that thousands of people in England are still facing potentially dangerous waits for cancer tests and treatment, putting lives at risk and causing unnecessary stress and worry.

“Staff across the system are doing their very best, but many are burnt out and stretched to breaking point.”

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said the figures “expose overstretched NHS services” and called for action to be taken to retain staff, upgrade infrastructure and fund NHS cancer services.

She added: “This is a fixable problem.”

Industrial strike
Striking junior doctors on the picket line outside Leeds General Infirmary on Thursday (Danny Lawson/PA)

It comes after data revealed waiting times across the health service in England had climbed to a new record high of 7.47 million at the end of May, up from 7.42 million at the end of April.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to bring the figure down earlier this year when it stood at 7.2 million – but has blamed industrial action for making the task “more challenging”.

The NHS has faced eight months of strikes, most recently by junior doctors, who walked out for five days from 7am on Thursday.

Consultants will strike for two days from July 20 followed by radiographers across 43 trusts, who are walking out for two days from July 25.

An NHS spokesperson said: “It is thanks to efforts encouraging people to come forward for vital cancer checks, that the NHS has been seeing and treating more people for cancer than ever before – double the number of people are receiving potentially lifesaving checks than a decade ago – and as a result more patients are being diagnosed at an early stage, increasing their chances of survival.

“The NHS is prioritising those who have waited longest but even as staff focus on the longest waiters, they are also ensuring that people who need care most urgently are seen promptly, while investing in extra diagnostic and treatment capacity.”