Published: 14:17, 07 February 2022
| Updated: 11:26, 08 February 2022
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson today made a surprise visit to the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital.
He was accompanied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and local MPs Helen Grant, Helen Whately and Tracy Crouch.
The meeting is being interpreted as a bid to show unity after suggestions in the Daily Telegraph that the Treasury had refused to sign off on the government's plans to tackle the NHS back-log caused by Covid.
The Health Secretary, Savid Javid, had already denied the rumour, saying the delay in the release of the plans had been caused by the arrival of the Omicron variant, and the need to re-focus on tackling that.
KMTV's report on the PM visiting the hospital earlier today
No local reporters or photographers were allowed to attend the visit and were only provided pictures from the Prime Minister's personal photographer.
Mr Johnson said: "One in nine of us is currently on an NHS waiting list - six million people across the country. That's huge numbers and they are going to keep going up.
"So we're doing all sorts of things to clear this Covid backlog."
He said the government would put £8m more into the NHS to finance elective surgery and would recruit 50,000 more nurses, but he said the NHS was already employing 45,000 more people now than than it did last year.
He said with that help, the government would be setting the NHS some "tough" targets so that "We can deliver for patients and for the taxpayer."
He praised the Kent Oncology Centre saying: "They have been working really fast throughout the pandemic. They've kept the level of treatments up so that they are almost the same as before Covid."
He said the government now wanted everywhere else in the country to match Maidstone's success.
He said the government would set a new target so that the "majority of people" who think they have cancer could receive a diagnosis within 28 days, and he said that should apply to "three out of four people" across the country by March of next year.
He also said: "We want nobody to be on a waiting list for more than two months."
"These are very tough targets..."
He added: "These are very tough targets and we will make sure the NHS delivers them."
One way to achieve that was an initiative called My Planned Care, which would enable patients to compare waiting lists at various hospitals and elect where to have their treatment.
Mr Johnson said: "If you are due an operation, you can look round and see where you can get it done faster - at somewhere like Maidstone for instance - then you can take advantage of that.
"So we will use patient choice to drive down waiting lists as well."
Mr Johnson denied there was any form of rift with his Chancellor and said it had been Mr Sunak's "sound management of the economy" that had enabled the government to take the necessary measures to tackle Covid and now the backlog.
He said: "The treasury and No 10 are working together in harmony."
The PM's visit to the oncology unit comes as the House of Commons library revealed in an answer to Labour that nationally, between April and November, almost 300,000 people had been unable to see a cancer specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral, the current guideline maximum wait.
The Kent Oncology Centre is part of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust (MTW) which is one of only a handful of hospital trusts in the country to meet the national standard for treating cancer patients within 62 days and it has achieved this for 29 months in a row.
The trust provides specialist cancer services to around 1.9 million people across Kent, Medway and East Sussex.
Mr Johnson and his colleagues were shown round the oncology centre and chemotherapy therapy day unit by Dr Henry Taylor, Chief of Cancer Services, and by Charlotte Wadey, Director of Nursing.
Dr Taylor said: “Throughout the pandemic staff continued to safely deliver all cancer treatments. Our clinical teams quickly redesigned patient care pathways and face to face appointments became virtual or telephone consultations. Multi-disciplinary teams also worked together, developing new ways of working which ensured we continued to diagnose and treat cancers as quickly as possible.”
The politicians talked to radiographers and medical physicists in the new multi-million-pound CT and LINAC (linear accelerator) suites, hearing first-hand about the importance of these machines in diagnosing and treating cancer.
The trust's chief executive Miles Scott said: ““In the last three years we’ve developed innovative new treatment pathways and have invested almost£10 million pounds in new buildings, scanning machines, 12 additional cancer consultants and specialist staff training and development.
“We are also opening a new oncology outpatients’ unit which will enable us to care for the increasing number of patients referred to us. Work began on this in January and will be completed later this year.”
During the visit Mr Johnson heard about the progress staff across the trust are also making with elective care. The trust has reduced the number of patients waiting over 52 weeks down to just one.