In Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, David Cameron repeatedly dodged Harriet Harman’s question on the maximum 14-day wait for patients with suspected cancer.

The question she asked was quite simple:

“This week the Government published their White Paper on the national health service. They say that they will get rid of targets. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether patients will keep their guaranteed right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks of seeing their GP?”

His answer was less than clear:

“As for the NHS, what we have decided is that we will keep targets only when they actually contribute to clinical outcomes. We all want to see a higher cancer survival rate. I am afraid that, after 13 years of Labour government, we have not the best cancer outcomes in Europe, and we want the best cancer outcomes. That means rapid treatment, yes, but it also means rapid follow-up, and it means people getting the radiotherapy, chemotherapy and drugs that they need. Those are all essential. The one thing that we on this side of the House will do is continue to put real-terms increases into the NHS, whereas I understand that it is now Labour policy to cut the NHS.”

Harriet Harman tried again:

“Quite apart from the anxiety of having to wait, results are best if treatment starts as soon as possible. That is why it is important to be diagnosed and to see a specialist quickly.

The Prime Minister has not answered the question. The whole House will have seen that. He has dodged the question, just as his Health Secretary did. This is what the Health Secretary said in the House when he, too, was dodging the question:

“I have not said that we are abandoning any of the cancer waiting-time targets at the moment”.

I ask the Prime Minister to give us a straight answer. Will cancer patients keep their guarantee to see a specialist within two weeks—yes or no?”

David Cameron fudged again:

“For some people, two weeks is too long. That is the whole point. If a target contributes to good clinical outcomes, it stays; if it does not, it goes.”

As Harriet Harman pointed out:

“…. the Prime Minister has still not answered. He is obviously ditching the guarantee for cancer patients, but he has not the guts to admit it to the House.”

However, a different response was given in the Lords, when Labour’s Lord Alf Dubs pressed the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Health, Earl Howe, on the same point.  This was the exchange:

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can do better than the Prime Minister did in Prime Minister’s Questions earlier today, when he declined to give a guarantee that the 14-day period, within which cancer patients should receive hospital treatment, would be upheld. Can he confirm that the Government will stick to the 14-day period?

Earl Howe: My Lords, that target of a 14-day referral period has a definite clinical underpinning. There are certainly no plans to abolish it.”

That was as clear an answer as you could get.

However, the bad news for cancer patients (and also probably for the good Earl Howe’s job security), when the Lords’ answer was put to the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson later in the day, he stuck with the Prime Minister’s fudge and refused to give a clear answer.

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