Jeremy Hunt has now been Secretary of State for Health for almost five and a half years, the longest ever to serve in British history, overtaking fellow Conservative Norman Fowler (health secretary under Margaret Thatcher). As well as being the longest serving he is also arguably the most reviled, and with good reason.
Hunt has managed to take our NHS from a well-performing system in 2012 to a service that has just seen two of the worst winter crises ever, failing cancer targets, staff vacancies at 100,000 and the longest surgical waiting lists in history. It is difficult therefore to not see his continuance in the role as an intentional tactic by this government in a much more protracted plan to radically alter healthcare provision in this country.
A Front Man
Jeremy Hunt took up the position of Secretary of State for Health on 4th September 2012 in the wake of the sacking of Andrew Lansley. David Cameron was looking for someone who could see off accusations of radical change to the NHS and competently steer the direction of the service in a way that would be sympathetic to the Conservative ideologies of private enterprise.
Many believe that running the NHS down in order to create fertile ground for privatisation is a deliberate plan by this Conservative government, and indeed the Health and Social Care Act introduced by Andrew Lansley at the time of Hunt’s appointment paved the way for private companies to profit from a public service. If the Health and Social Care Act is a vehicle for privatisation, then Jeremy Hunt has been its long-distance driver, pushing forward, navigating each twist and turn with finesse. A socialised healthcare system is in many ways anathema to the ideologies of the Conservatives who prioritise individual wealth over public gain.
In 2005 Jeremy Hunt co-authored Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party, it was a policy book containing writings from various Conservative MPs in which was stated;
“Our ambition should be to break down the barriers between public and private provision, in effect denationalising the provision of health care in Britain”
Hunt has subsequently sought to distance himself from this comment denying it was he that wrote it, however in any case actions speak louder than words, and his actions have recently advocated for introducing an American-style privatised system in the form of Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs), now renamed Integrated Care Systems (ICSs), into our NHS. Members of Keep Our NHS Public were amongst those who last month challenged Hunt and NHS England at Judicial Review over bringing in these reforms, and we await the verdict.
ICSs (already introduced in some areas), would open the doors to private companies owning huge chunks of both health and social care provision under contract law with zero public accountability. Rather telling was Hunt’s reappointment in the last cabinet reshuffle where he emerged with the elongated title of ‘Secretary of State for Health and Social Care’. (Indeed he had always had responsibility for this area.) Integrating the two services in line with ICSs now seems arguably a more natural undertaking for one who has been bestowed with the explicit responsibility for both areas and adds to the supposed legitimacy of any structural reform.
Hunt has a track record of ignoring evidence and has been accused by celebrities and academics alike of ‘cherry-picking’ statistics to suit his own ends. Last August Hunt accused the late Professor Stephen Hawking of “a most pernicious falsehood” when he made this accusation. Hawking further maintained that it was the Government’s plan to introduce an American style insurance system and was amongst those challenging the health secretary over ACOs before his death earlier this year.
The recent phenomena of ‘fake news’ predicated by high profile politicians has been used to great effect by Jeremy Hunt and colleagues regarding the NHS. Over the last 5 years he has strenuously denied a crisis and in 2015/6 told 54,000 junior doctors they were wrong about patient safety.
His Treatment of Staff
For all his false praise of NHS staff, Jeremy Hunt has treated his workforce spectacularly badly. As if creating very difficult working environments as a result of an underfunded and understaffed system wasn’t enough, he has scrapped the nursing bursary and told staff year after year that they do not deserve a pay rise. He caused the first ever all-out doctors’ strike in 2016 when junior doctors tried to resist the demand that they stretch a 5-day service into 7 with no extra provision. Hunt ironically said he was trying to advocate for improved patient safety when highlighting the supposed ‘weekend effect’ but various academic studies have subsequently shed serious doubt on the basis of this claim.
Consistent pleas by junior doctors to be listened to repeatedly fell on deaf ears with Hunt refusing to engage in any debate. To add insult to injury Hunt at the end of last year finally admitted publicly that junior doctors “may have had a point about patient safety”.
Our hardworking doctors were painted as the enemy. The government tried to present the strike to the public as if money was the main motivating factor. Staff were represented as negligent in cancelling operations. Yet having claimed last winter that the NHS was ‘better prepared than ever before’, when the government itself cancelled 30,000 operations (including many for cancer) due to their own mismanagement, this was called ‘forward planning’. Their hypocrisy is astounding.
Hunt’s reputation and actions speak for themselves. Since his appointment in 2012 those waiting longer than the 4-hour target in A&E has increased by a staggering 842% and targets here have not been met since 2015. There are now 7000 fewer acute hospital beds than in 2012 and the surgical waiting list has increased by 1.4 million. For all his actions and hypocritical rhetoric around the pursuit of patient safety, those waiting longer than two weeks for urgent cancer care have more than doubled since he became health minister.
Jeremy Hunt has presided over the worst winter crisis in the NHS for 14 years, and his mismanagement drew the attention of the World’s media in 2016/17 when in an unprecedented move the Red Cross called the situation in our hospitals “a humanitarian crisis.” Seemingly no lessons were learnt last winter when conditions were just as bad, with patients dying needlessly and hardworking staff struggling to cope.
Jeremy Hunt is ahead of NHS founder Nye Bevan so far by 4 months in terms of length of servitude. There is an interesting parallel. Bevan was a visionary whose actions established a system we are all intensely proud of. Our modern NHS employs more than a million people, has saved countless lives and holds a special place in the hearts of the British public – it has been said it is the closest we have to a national religion. Hunt on the other hand seems intent on unpicking the founding vision of his counterpart, of destroying a publicly owned, publicly provided system for his government’s and associates’ own selfish ends. Far from preserving life, they have squandered it unnecessarily in the pursuit of austerity and of privatisation. As the NHS approaches its 70th birthday we must be continually mindful of the agenda of Hunt and the government he represents and continue to maintain pressure if we are to see many more happy birthdays to come.
Samantha Wathen, Press and Media Officer