Dr John Puntis, co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, musician and activist considers what – if anything – will change with the resignation of Matt Hancock.
So, farewell then Matt Hancock, little lamented Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, described as hopeless by your boss and forever associated with the one of the highest death tolls from coronavirus anywhere in the world. Whereas you should have been sacked for incompetence, you have resigned because of being caught on camera flouting the social distancing measures repeatedly urged on the rest of us, such that even the Tory faithful were revolted. Already a byword for ‘cronysim’, how the recipient of your affections was appointed in the first place as an advisor in the Department of Health, and then became a non-executive director with £15k a year from the public purse are questions awaiting answers. Formerly a company director, she still has shares in the lobbying firm offering clients “deep understanding of the mechanics of government”. Meanwhile, her brother is employed as a senior executive by a healthcare company that provides urgent and primary care services. No conflicts of interest here then.
Sajid Javid, Hancock’s replacement, has a background in international banking which together with his short and lack lustre spell as chancellor suggests he will have little insight into how the current and future involvement of private companies in the NHS will serve only to reduce quality of care by fragmentation of services and the siphoning of funds from patient care to shareholders. The misleadingly titled 'NHS test and trace' is perhaps the most striking recent example among many. Pressing tasks include addressing the NHS workforce crisis, the absence of any proposals for a solution to the problems of social care, and dealing with the huge backlog of NHS work. The latter will be much more of a concern to constituents than yet another top down reorganisation as set out in the Health and Social Care white paper, about to be presented as a bill to parliament. This project should now surely be abandoned, not least because it represents a significant power grab by the former Secretary of State for Health, a reduction in local control and holding to account, and an endorsement of ever increasing privatisation.
The prime minister promised a future public inquiry would have “the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public, under oath”, but report years in the future. The People’s Covid Inquiry has just completed its nine sessions under the chairmanship of Michael Mansfield QC, hearing testimony from both international experts and citizen witnesses. All this is now available via the People's Covid Inquiry website. Summary recommendations and a detailed report will follow in the coming months. It is abundantly clear, however, that implementation of basic public health measures is still urgently needed if viral transmission is to be eliminated and further restrictions prevented. These include border controls, adequate support for all those testing positive or asked to isolate, and optimisation of ventilation in schools and workplaces. We must stand together with ‘Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice’ and insist that there are important lessons to be learned now rather than after the next election when recommendations made may no longer be relevant.
Recent inquiries including Al-Sweady, Chilcot, and Saville have taken up to 12 years to produce a final report. Such time scales are too slow to help shape the government’s response to the developing third wave of this pandemic, or to ensure avoidance of further surges from new variants. An independent and judge-led statutory public inquiry with a swift interim review would yield lessons that can be applied immediately and help prevent further deaths. An example is the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium Inquiry under Lord Justice Taylor when interim findings were delivered within 11 weeks, allowing life-saving measures to be introduced in stadiums ahead of the next football season. It can be done therefore, and surely this is the least that is owed to all those who have been bereaved. Javid’s first action could be to support this call if he is indeed intent on “returning the country to normal”.