"That is the most extraordinary speech I have heard from a secretary of state for Health in all my years in this House - this is the first speech in which a secretary of state has claimed he is not responsible for anything."
“That is the most extraordinary speech I have heard from a secretary of state for Health in all my years in this House – this is the first speech in which a secretary of state has claimed he is not responsible for anything.”
Frank Dobson berated Jeremy Hunt in tones less avuncular than acerbic – regretting his latterday successors’ fascination with political pyrotechnics, dubbing him the “Catherine Wheel of Spin”.
As the shadow secretary of state, Andy Burnham has said that, “since the turn of the year, the opposition have been warning the government about building pressure in A and E departments…the evidence is clear: this system is showing serious signs of distress”.
In PMQs, David Cameron had complacently implied that “the problems” had been fixed – however he seems to have mislaid the note that told him for all but four weeks this secretary of state has been in post, major A&Es have missed the government’s targets. Now six in 10 trusts are warning that next winter will be even worse.
Just putting the PM back into his plotting shed for the moment, all the emerging evidence tends to indicate that Jeremy is not really up to the job. (Hands up whoever thought he might be – but that’s another matter)
Citing A&Es as the barometer of the system, Burnham called on Hunt to snap out of his complacency which he calls “one of the biggest dangers facing the NHS”.
Certainly Hunt seems to have decided to take the path to the land of the technicolour fairytale. The horror stories of queues of backed up ambulances; the failure of the 95 per cent operational standard; hospitals issuing more black alerts in the past year than in the previous 10 years combined; elderly patients kept on trolleys for 18 hours; the imploding 111 service; more cancelled operations than for a decade; a 30 per cent increase in bed days lost to delayed discharges because care plans cannot be put in place – almost all on Hunt’s watch.
Far from acknowledging the Kings Fund evidence that A&E waiting times had recently hit a nine year high, according to Jeremy Hunt:
“A&E targets are being met not missed – the NHS is treating more people more quickly & more safely than ever in its’ history.”
Oh yes? Oh most definitely no.
The government’s own refuse-to-publish risk registers gave them forewarning. The NHS Confederation, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the King’s Fund and the Foundation Trust Network all warned Hunt about what could happen.
The summit convened by Labour last week to explore the real lives impact of “the contradictory chaos that now passes for government health policy” sadly showed that the warnings have evolved into layer-upon-layer of hard-to-hear details from front line staff experiences in A&E.
An FOI request to the Department of Health (DH) revealed that the first time Hunt visited an A&E was on April 3 – fully six months after he was appointed. Even then, it was the A&E within walking distance of the Palace of Westminster. Hopefully he arrived with a healthy glow of perspiration on his top lip.
Hunt even tried to maintain that NHS spending had “increased in real terms” – concocting, a la Mary Berry magimixing whipped cream from thin air, an “extra” investment of £0.6bn. Thus we are presented with an interesting concept, putting aside the £3bn reorganisation profligacy, we know that Osborne had recently been found to have siphoned off into his Treasury soda fountain of tax avoidance at least £1.6bn of the £2.2bn underspend courtesy of PCTs and CCGs.
As for cuts in frontline staff and bed reductions, the figures are clear – more than 4,000 nursing posts have been lost since May 2010 and the Care Quality Commission says that one in 10 hospitals in England is understaffed.
One in three hospitals in England also say they do not have sufficient staffing levels to deal safely with demand on services. The College of Emergency Medicine has warned of a “workforce crisis” in A&E, with 27 per cent of trusts planning more workforce cuts in the coming year . One in 3 feel they will have insufficient staff to meet demand.
Burnham sensibly recommended the urgent re-allocation of £1.2billion of the underspend to support social care in 2013-14 and 2014-15, to ensure adequate staffing levels “at every hospital in England”. But Hunt was having none of it. Instead he maintained that the Statistics Commissioner was entirely incorrect and ploughed on in a state of delusional agitation before quitting the chamber like a ferret inn search of a drainpipe.
The most damning blow in the end came from his own benches. Stephen Dorrell was happy to state his allegiance to the Burnham plan and the solidarity of the Health Select Committee.
“I am often told that I am supporting Andy Burnham’s plan. I am quite happy to support Andy Burnham’s plan.”
So take a tip from those who know about these things Mr Hunt – either get a grip or take a much longer walk than the one you took to have a token peek at your nearest A&E in your coffeebreak and let the grown-ups get on with saving lives.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.