Jeremy Hunt’s speech to the Conservative Party conference today was one of the worst one ever made by a holder of a major Whitehall department and showed he is out of his depth as health secretary.
Hunt came to the Department of Health with a reputation as someone who had no great affection for the NHS with its mandate for providing health, free at the point of delivery, for all those in need.
He was one of a group of ‘Young Turk’ Tories who, some years ago, advocated an insurance-based system for the UK’s health service – the forerunner of the privatisation of the NHS now taking place at a rapid pace. More recently, he was reportedly questioning the need for the NHS contribution to the successful Olympic opening ceremony.
And then there was his close relationship with that high priest of capitalism, Rupert Murdoch, when he was culture secretary – the relationship which was so cruelly dissected at the Leveson Inquiry.
To prove the sceptics about his commitment to the NHS wrong, he had to make a powerful speech to the Tory delegates in Birmingham in support of the ethos and values enshrined in the NHS he purports to care for; instead, what he came up with was a short, vacuous, policy-light speech that failed to address the crisis in the NHS created by his disastrous predecessor, Andrew Lansley.
It was evident he had either not got a grip of the scale of the crisis facing the NHS or he is in complete denial – or both.
There was no reference to the scale of the cuts currently taking place in England, or to the damage the so-called £20 billion efficiency savings are doing to the NHS. Nor was there any recognition of the thousands of nursing and other health professional jobs that had been lost since the coalition came to power in May 2010.
Depending on whose statistics you read, the job losses range between 6,000 and 50,000. Whatever the figure, it is a great haemorrhaging of skilled staff and can only impact badly on patient care.
There was no indication how he would improve the mortality rates for the main ‘killer diseases’ – cancers, strokes and heart disease. If Tory-controlled local councils, which take over the public health budgets in April next year, redirect those budgets away from existing public health services, how is Jeremy Hunt going to improve survival rates for the major ‘killer’ diseases?
It is not good for the country, for the NHS, and for the millions of patients it serves every week that we have a new health secretary so out of his depth, when the waiting lists are rising and thousands of frontline health professionals are losing their jobs.
When Jeremy Hunt came into office last month he had a fantastic opportunity to make a name for himself as the health secretary that saved the NHS – he has flunked it at the first hurdle. However, no matter who David Cameron has in charge of the NHS – the world’s fifth largest employer – the direction of travel would be the same under this government; the maximisation of profits for private companies at the expense of the sick.