An innovation fund for advanced radiotherapy IT and technical solutions should be established to help ease the “huge” backlog in cancer patients due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new recovery plan.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Radiotherapy (APPGRT) has published a six-point plan to transform radiotherapy services and save thousands of lives from the cancer backlog.

It calls for a “ring-fenced” innovation fund to be established within the next three months to  “streamline working practices, improve the roll-out of new patient focused technologies, maximise the efficiency of the depleted work force”.

It comes as a BBC Panorama investigation found Covid-19 could cause an extra 35,000 cancer deaths due to delays to diagnosis and treatment during the pandemic.

The pandemic has highlighted the benefits of radiotherapy as one of the few cancer treatments that can be provided relatively safely, according to the plan.

It’s one of the “most high-tech” medical specialties and is “best placed to rapidly introduce advanced IT, AI learning, digital networking solutions and patient focused technologies”.

Industry members should work together to deliver modern IT, remote working and delivery solutions to expand the UK wide national radiotherapy network. This collaboration would help mitigate a work force crisis that threatens to leave the service “overwhelmed” by the backlog of patients.

“The radiotherapy service was very poorly resourced with a massive workforce deficit prior to Covid-19, and unless boosted and made fit for purpose now, will be overwhelmed in the coming months/years with the cancer treatment backlog,” the plan said.

“The fund would lead the transformation of working practices to help resolve existing workforce pressures immediately and to modernise UK wide networking to share resources and expertise.”

“Off the shelf” solutions from the commercial radiotherapy industry should be considered to ensure the most innovative technological solutions are implemented during the pandemic, it adds.

The APPGRT undertook a rapid “mini-inquiry” into the impact of Covid-19 on radiotherapy provision in May 2020, developing its six-point plan to help mitigate the backlog of cancer patients caused by the pandemic.

With a 60% drop in referrals and 20% drop in the start of treatments, there is a wave of demand anticipated to hit the NHS after the summer, the group said.

MP Tim Farron, chair of the APPGRT, said: “Radiotherapy services have been the silent lifesaver in this country for so long and have suffered a damaging lack of planning because of that low profile.

“This report outlines how we can turn this around, transform services and rapidly make up for years of underinvestment. Cancer survival rates in the UK have been amongst the worst in Europe for years.

“We absolutely need a plan if we are to avoid a national tragedy brought about by the cancer backlog.

“We can no longer make excuses for not delivering smart changes which will boost radiotherapy to become a key pillar in our cancer recovery plan.”

Digital Health Unplugged will be publishing a podcast looking at how technology should be used to ease the backlog of appointments caused by the Covid-19 pandemic due to missed appointments and delays to treatment. It will be published on 14 July on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Podcasts and on Digital Health News.