The NHS is set to create new testing centres for cancer, heart disease and other illnesses in 160 unused shops and retail parks across the country, in a bid to clear a record backlog of patients.
Health chiefs said the need to diagnose and treat patients safely – away from those infected with coronavirus – had underlined the need to radically reform the health service.
A damning report by former National Cancer Director at the Department of Health Professor Sir Mike Richards published on Friday warns that even before the pandemic, the NHS was reaching a “tipping point” with services unable to keep up with demand.
It states England “lags far behind” other industrialised nations for provision of testing equipment, and ranks lowest in the OECD for CT scanner provision.
And it says that without reform and investment, existing waiting targets were unlikely to be hit, let alone Government commitments to diagnose cancer earlier.
Sir Mike’s report reveals the numbers facing long waits for diagnostic tests rose 20-fold during lockdown.
By early June, roughly 580,000 were waiting more than six weeks for a diagnostic test, compared with around 30,000 in February, it warns.
Experts have warned that the total waiting list – which already stands at four million – could now reach 10 million, because of the backlog of tests and treatment which was delayed during lockdown.
Yesterday the board of NHS England approved Sir Mike’s proposals for a network of around 160 “one stop shops” across the country.
The plans will see new facilities opened in empty shops and retail parks, in a bid to ensure that as many patients as possible can be assessed in “Covid free” sites.
Under the changes, which involve three permanent community testing hubs per million people, the majority of routine checks – such as MRI, X-rays and CT scans – would take place outside of hospitals.
Professor Sir Mike, who was the first NHS National Cancer Director and the Care Quality Commission’s chief inspector of hospitals, said that the need for radical change had been amplified by the pandemic.
In order to protect patients from coronavirus, those undergoing planned tests – to diagnose diseases such as cancer – must be kept away from emergency patients, he said.
The separate systems should also ensure that the most urgent cases underwent tests more quickly, he said.
The report says hospitals with an A&E should have access to a minimum of two CT scanners so patients known to be free of coronavirus can be kept separate from those who are Covid-19 positive or have not been tested.
Sir Mike said: “The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the need to overhaul the way our diagnostic services are delivered. While these changes will take time and investment in facilities and more staff, it is the right moment to seize the opportunities to assist recovery and renewal of the NHS.
“Not only will these changes make services more accessible and convenient for patients but they will help improve outcomes for patients with cancer and other serious conditions.”
The cancer expert said that while some of the reforms would take time, and investment in staff and services, some could be introduced with immediate effect.
The plans require a doubling of CT scanning capacity over five years and 6,000 more radiographers and radiologists.
Sir Mike was commissioned by NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens to review diagnostic services as part of the NHS Long Term Plan published last year.
Dr Jodie Moffat, Cancer Research UK’s head of early diagnosis, said: “Improving diagnostic services is vital to give people the best chance of an early diagnosis, to ensure more people survive their cancer. But to do this, the NHS needs investment in kit and workforce to meet the rising demand.
“The pandemic has made the challenge even harder. We recognise the efforts of the NHS, but we need government to act in the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to ensure the NHS has the staff and equipment it needs to cope with the huge backlog of people waiting for diagnostic tests and get cancer services back on track, and fit for the future.”