by Amy Jones
Tuesday, 28
December 2021
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09:02

If Jeremy Hunt is such an expert on the NHS, why didn’t he fix it?

The former health secretary wasted his time in charge
by Amy Jones
Jeremy Hunt, as a would-be Tory leader. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

Another day, another attempt by Jeremy Hunt to position himself as the leading national expert on the NHS. Ever since his leadership bid in 2019, during which he sold himself as “the first prime minister to have run our biggest public service, the NHS”, Hunt has sought to capitalise on his tenure as healthcare secretary.

Rarely missing an opportunity to list the issues facing the embattled health service, Hunt popped up on Christmas Day with a column in the Telegraph: “Voters won’t be pleased if their NHS tax hike is wasted: The Prime Minister must grapple with long-term reform of the health service”. Hunt briefly touches on the fact that he was health secretary, an experience from which he has apparently “learned many lessons”. He glosses over the fact that he was actually the longest serving health secretary in British history. Being at the helm from 2012-2018, Hunt had an unparalleled opportunity to reshape and improve the health service. Yet he neglected to do so.

In parliament, Hunt chairs the Health and Social Care Select Committee, a body meant to analyse the shortcomings in the healthcare system that he presided over for six years. As arguably one of the people most responsible for the state the NHS found itself in on the eve of the pandemic, it seems jarring that he is the lead critic of its Covid response.

He oversaw record numbers of cancelled operations, such as in winter 2017, when a staggering 62,000 surgeries were cancelled, and presided over the first Junior Doctor’s Strike in 40 years; his plans for changes to contracts at the time were described by the Public Accounts Committee as “seriously flawed” with “no coherent attempts” to understand staffing. Indeed, the Health and Social Care Select committee found at the time that he had “broken his pledges on NHS funding and… [mislead] the public about health service reforms”. He was even found to have acted unlawfully by trying to downgrade maternity & A&E departments. Hardly a flawless record.

In the Telegraph, he argues for increasing both the number of doctors trained and GPs employed, and decreasing the obsession with national targets. Once again, Hunt seems to forget his own role in all of this. As far back as 2015, he promised an additional 5000 GPs in the NHS by 2020. But, in the six years he was health secretary, he managed to employ a mere 162. He still does not fully understood staffing, getting even basic facts wrong, like stating that it takes “seven years to train a doctor”, when a 30 second Google would show that the vast majority of medical degrees take five years.

Perhaps it should be unsurprising that, after presiding over a multitude of broken targets, Hunt isn’t too fond of them. When Hunt started as health secretary 94.9% of patients were admitted, transferred or discharged from A&E within 4 hours, close to the target of 95%, when he left, 6 years later, it was down to 84%. In 2012, 87.3% of patients with cancer started treatment within 2 months of referral (the target is 85%), by the time he left, it had fallen to 78.3%.

As a doctor working in the NHS, it’s hard to watch Mr Hunt play the part of wise public service guru, when his own time as Health Secretary was a cautionary tale.

Amy Jones is an anonymous medical doctor with a background in philosophy and bioethics. You can find her on Twitter at @skepticalzebra.

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Michael O'Donnell
Michael O'Donnell
9 months ago

The NHS is not run for the benefit of patients, but its staff. It is Stalinist in its approach to criticism and bends facts to suit its own agenda. It is run by an overpaid cartel of bureaucrats who would not survive in any other organisation. It is completely unaccountable and spends a fortune in litigation defending the indefensible.
It’s time that the rug was pulled from under the cosy cartel who are perpetuating this mess.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago

That assessment is spot on. I worked in the NHS and I am almost ashamed of the fact.
It is the one of greatest con-tricks ever perpetrated on the British people. It is supported by the Labour party because no matter how poor the service, it is a socialist model, and therefore ideologically beyond reproach, and it is useful stick with which to beat the right.
So far as the Conservatives are concerned, the only way to avoid damaging press headlines is to appear more pro-NHS than Labour. Anything less than slavish devotion is greeted by shrieks of they’re going to club the baby seal

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
9 months ago

It is always easier to pontificate from the sidelines than actually accomplish something useful in reforming the bureaucratic monstrosity the NHS has become.

David McDowell
David McDowell
9 months ago

The most sensible headline in years.

Will R
Will R
9 months ago
Reply to  David McDowell

Yes, perfectly put

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
9 months ago

The fatal flaw of the NHS was that we nationalised healthcare and not health insurance. A lot of people seem unable to distinguish between the latter and the American system, and yet in most of the world it works well enough to ensure decent healthcare that isn’t run like Gosplan.

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
9 months ago

In the last few months I’ve seen both a family member treated for cancer in France, and a colleague treated for a serious condition in the Cornish NHS. The former, prompt, effective; fantastic. The latter – patchy, including the forgetting of pain relief after an operation. Just what I’ve seen personally but it does seem to chime with others experiences.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
9 months ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

Indeed. I and family have experienced good treatment almost simultaneously with ridiculous wasteful inefficiency. The people seem consistently competent and caring (although we’re not impressed by our GPs, lately). The systems seem labyrinthine, slow and frustrating, and probably seem so to the staff, too.

Last edited 9 months ago by Colin Elliott
John McGurk
John McGurk
9 months ago

Can’t disagree with Amy on any of this. Very well put and it’s instructive to look at his abysmal record. One aspect I noticed about Hunt which makes him a poor political leader. Saint Jeremy has a sanctimonious Blairesque sense of his own destiny and a ruthlessness which would shame Frances Urqhuart. His attempt to throw the hapless chair of the JCVI under the bus at the select committee session on Covid response. This was because of their refusal to recommend the vaccination of minors. The fact that the Public Health zealots overruled their well deliberated evidenced decision in any case, showed he was about blame. This all portrayed behind a facade of brittle , passive- aggressive impatience, reminding me of too many of of our underpowered but over-entitled political class.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
9 months ago

Amy Jones might also have mentioned that PHE, with a staff of 5000 and a budget of millions, was set up by Hunt’s department, and run for 5 years while he was head, and that part of its mission statement was to anticipate major outbreaks of infectious diseases and direct the response to them. Of all the health organisations which failed, PHE failed most spectacularly.

Peter LR
Peter LR
9 months ago

I saw the article was by him so didn’t read it as a consequence. It’s strange how elites reward failure; in his case allowing him to chair the Health Committee and assuming he has wisdom from experience. Is there any way we can break this throttle-hold which appoints people because they are reliable: that is, they can be relied on not to challenge the status quo?

Tim Duckworth
Tim Duckworth
9 months ago

And, above all the dreadful failure indicators listed , there is no mention of the Cygnus exercise with its description of the state of readiness to face a pandemic

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
9 months ago

I’ve long thought Hunt has a brass neck to dare to criticise. It’s not that what he says is necessarily wrong, it’s the fact that he has proved that he did no better than recent incumbents when he had the chance.
His civil servants congratulated themselves on having amongst the best anti-epidemic precautions in the world; no, they didn’t.
It’s clear that we don’t have enough hospital beds or train enough doctors and nurses. He was responsible for health policies for six years, so qualifies uniquely amongst politicians for failing to correct these.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
9 months ago

Encourage a parallel insurance system backed by government so that more people can afford to go private?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago

That’s very appealing, in the hope the good system would eventually drive out the bad. But an incoming Labour government would remove the insurance option, or downgrade it. The whole system has to change, especially to ensure the poor and old do not get left behind in an intended gradualist approach

D Glover
D Glover
9 months ago

If the solvent, literate, articulate, capable people go private the NHS patients will be the residue. What sort of service will be the result of there being no-one even capable of complaining?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
9 months ago

There would be a BBC/Guardian/Labour/etc campaign accusing the government of ‘privatising the NHS’, which is a charge considered worse than treason.

Jasper Carrot
Jasper Carrot
9 months ago

It can oft be said of many other government departments, where secretaries of state/ministers have no, or very limited, experience of the portfolio which they are gifted. The NHS is a continuing embarrassment & like much else in respect of governance needs systemic reform.

Kieran Saxon
Kieran Saxon
9 months ago

Another great article. I just laughed when Jeremy Hunt lead an investigation into COVID that basically decided that everything would have been better if we’d started two weeks earlier.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
9 months ago

I am not in any way an expert in Health…but when he was in the Media Department he oversaw what was already a mad dog’s dinner of an idea that John Prescott had for local or *hyper local news* and turned it into a dogs dinner of an idea that had been vomited up by another dog before the industry had to eat it. There was a laudable aim of creating small, local, non-corporate mini-broadcasters accountable to small local companies made up of *locals* and not-for-profits, charities or whatever.
This was bang in my career space so I read all the stuff and went to all the meetings, including the industry one where Jeremy H did his best Tony B shirtsleeved impression of boundless energy and enthusiasm trying to sell the biggest crock of the proverbial as a great idea.
Predictably all sorts of chancers tried to pile in..and with the horrible *corporates* (like say a Regional ITV company, or foreign *City TV* broadcaster almost axiomatically excluded the chancers and the enthusiastic but bewildered non broadcasters got most of the licenses.

Nobody watches it, it is a colossal waste of money and should never have been *broadcast TV* as internet TV even all those years ago was doing a decent job of providing hyper local news offerings.
So it wasn’t just Health where he played the competent business consultant type of !deas-Meister, but with no actual idea of how the world he wanted his ideas to live in, actually works.

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
9 months ago

Jeremy Hunt was such a two-faced Minister for the NHS that we can see he would, and did, blame everybody but himself.
It’s politicians like him that make me want a Private Health Service.

Last edited 9 months ago by Ann Ceely