The NHS is likely to miss its target to return treatment waits for cancer to pre-Covid levels by next March, a health leader has said.

Dr Liz Bishop, who sits on NHS England’s national cancer board, was asked at the Health Service Journal Cancer Forum whether the service would be back to “business as usual” performance by next spring.

She said: “I think it depends on what you mean by ‘business as usual’.

“If you mean hitting the 62-day numbers, and the 104-day numbers, by next March, then no. If I am honest, I don’t think we will.

“Do I know when that date will be? No, I don’t know.

“But what I do know is that everyone is working really hard to do it and get there.”

Overall, the national target is for at least 85% of patients to start their first treatment for cancer within two months (62 days) of an urgent GP referral.

This has not been met for years, with performance particularly declining between 2013 and 2018.

Since the pandemic it has fallen further, with 67% of patients waiting under 62 days in December 2021.

In its 2022/23 mandate to NHS England, the Government said the 62-day backlog must be returned to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023.

Performance in February 2020, before the pandemic, was 74%.

A separate improvement aim is for “long waiting” cancer patients, with any cancer patients waiting 104 days or more to be reviewed as to why there are delays.

HSJ analysis, published last month, revealed 11% of patients waited more than 104 days for cancer treatment in February following an urgent referral, which is a higher proportion of patients than at any point during the pandemic.

Dr Bishop, who is also the north west’s Clatterbridge Cancer Centre’s chief executive, said of her own trust’s performance: “We have all got our trajectories, so for us we’ve got a target to get down to by the end of March next year.

“We were doing really well towards the back end of last year and then Omicron set us back, which was hugely disappointing.”

An NHS spokeswoman said: “The NHS is investing billions in expanding treatments and diagnostics, and the latest figures show almost 30,000 people started treatment for cancer in March, the second highest month on record.

“Identifying people with cancer as early as possible so they can be treated sooner is an absolute priority, and NHS staff continue to roll out initiatives from cancer symptom hotlines to lung-scanning trucks which have already caught hundreds of cancers earlier.

“It remains vital that anyone with symptoms or concerns comes forward to get seen as quickly as possible.”