A cash crisis in the NHS is threatening to delay a new screening programme for bowel cancer and could result in unnecessary deaths, medical experts have warned.

An editorial published on-line by the British Medical Journal said the programme - due to launch in England next month - faces a delay because no funding has been put in place.

It said the "case for screening is clear" but questioned whether the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme was being shelved.

The view was backed by the charity Cancer Research UK, which accused the Department of Health of "unacceptable prevarication" that could lead to unnecessary deaths.

Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK after lung cancer.

In 2004, 16,148 people died from it - more than the 12,347 who died from breast cancer and 1,093 from cervical cancer, the editorial said.

Both breast and cervical cancers have effective, well-run screening programmes.

The editorial added: "Five-year survival rates for bowel cancer, although increasing, remain below 50 per cent.

"The Government has introduced ambitious targets for maximum waiting times of 18 weeks for diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

"But the most effective way to improve survival is to diagnose bowel cancer while the disease is still asymptomatic, which is possible by screening the general population."

The editorial said there was "still time" to introduce the programme in 2006 but added that delays carried the risk of harming professional goodwill behind improvements to the NHS.

It added: "The Government's short-term financial difficulties should not be permitted to erode national confidence in its commitment to tackling bowel cancer death rates."

Cancer Research UK's chief executive Professor Alex Markham said he feared the programme was under serious threat.

"It was supposed to start in the next ten days.

"But despite constant reassurances that this vital initiative was on schedule, not a penny has been put in place to set up the necessary screening centres for the programme to be rolled out as planned.

"This prevarication from the Department of Health is completely unacceptable and continuing delay will lead to people dying unnecessarily from bowel cancer."

Last August, the Government announced that the programme would be phased in from April, with men and women aged between 60 and 69 screened every two years.

The programme will cost £37.5 million in its first two years of roll-out and plans were for about 25 per cent of England to be covered by the end of 2006/7.