CANCER patients in Southampton are waiting longer to start their life-saving treatment, worrying new figures show.

Almost one in eight people suspected of having the disease are failing to get an appointment with a specialist within two months of a referral by their GP.

Only 86.9 per cent of patients began treatment within 62 days in the first three months of 2014 - a sharp decline on the 90.3 per cent that did so one year earlier.

It puts University Hospital Southampton within touching distance of a key Government target, which says 85 per cent must be treated within two months.

But performance was much better at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester.

Between January and March, 93.3 per cent of suspected cancer sufferers saw a specialist within the time limit, down just 0.3 per cent on the same three months of 2013.

And the Isle of Wight NHS Trust also scored highly in the NHS England statistics with a figure of 92 per cent - but that was down from 95.5 per cent, a year earlier.

Across England, just 84.4 per cent of patients hit the 62-day target, which meant the NHS breached it for the first time since the benchmark was introduced in 2009.

But University Hospital Southampton played down suggestions of a gathering crisis, insisting it was “pleased” to have hit the target - despite rising patient numbers.

Andy Hyett, its deputy chief operating officer at UHS, said: “That is testament to the hard work of our committed and dedicated individuals and teams.

“As is the case throughout the NHS, we are seeing increasing numbers of patients referred to us for treatment, but we hope continued investment in new doctors, theatres, radiographers and bed and diagnostic capacity will enable us to continue to achieve an acceptable standard of performance for our patients.”

A Department of Health spokesman said an extra £750m had been pumped into early cancer treatment, but urged health chiefs to tackle “any dips in local performance”.