What next for the new Health Secretary?
The last time there was a new face in charge at the Department of Health was September 2012. The London Olympics had just finished, Nick Clegg was Deputy Prime Minister, and Jeremy Corbyn was just a rebel on the Labour backbenches. Brexit as a concept hadn’t even been invented.
Fast forward five years and ten months and Jeremy Hunt, the longest-serving Health Secretary, has finally been persuaded to move on to the Foreign Office, following Boris Johnson’s hasty resignation on Monday. His replacement at 39 Victoria Street is the former Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, the youngest member of the Cabinet and a former protégé of George Osborne. He joins the Department of Health (and now Social Care) at a fascinating but challenging time. His predecessor has just overseen the NHS’ 70th Birthday celebrations and a sizeable increase in its budget, following Hunt’s success earlier this year in expanding the remit of the Department. Essentially, Hancock arrives after the good news has been announced. But this doesn’t mean he won’t be busy. Over the next few months, he’ll be overseeing the NHS’ 10 year plan and the long awaited social care green paper, whilst also dealing with PPRS negotiations and preparing the NHS for Brexit. And before long, he’ll be answering headline-grabbing questions on winter pressures.
So what will this mean for the sector?
Matt Hancock is relatively new to health, so the biggest challenge will inevitably be getting to grips with one of Whitehall’s most complicated departments. Although his wife is an osteopath, he has shown little interest in health during his eight years in Parliament. His most notable intervention thus far has been around the potential of digital technology to improve patient outcomes. He also made a rare foray into mental health, saying that we’ve got to do more to tackle the stigma and calling for a ban on phones in schools because of their impact on the wellbeing of children.
We know Artificial Intelligence in particular is a personal priority of his, not least off the back of his successful stint at DCMS where he made a name for himself first as Minister for Digital and then as the Secretary of State. So whilst Hunt will inevitably go down as the Health Secretary to champion patient safety, Hancock might see this as his opportunity to carve out his own profile around digital innovation. We know this is already on the Prime Minister’s agenda too, following her recent speech on the potential of AI to diagnose cancer earlier. The NHS is in desperate need of a digital upgrade, and AI offers huge opportunities for the health service. It will be particularly interesting to see how Hancock can tackle the current barriers preventing the uptake of innovation in the NHS.
We also know that Hancock took a more interventionist approach to his previous brief than the one taken by Hunt. It remains to be seen whether he’ll do the same in what is a more complicated sector. Think back to when Andrew Lansley was Health Secretary and how the introduction of the Health and Social Care Act led to significant changes and fragmentation in commissioning. Former Labour Health Secretaries were also more ‘hands on’. In 2009, Andy Burnham announced he would adopt an NHS ‘preferred provider’ approach, sending the health service into disarray as they attempted to implement a policy that was considered by some to contravene EU competition law. Before him, Patricia Hewitt’s two years in the job were remembered for her ‘top down’ implementation of reforms which resulted in calls for her resignation. In contrast, Hunt’s tenure has mostly been characterised by a ‘hands off’ approach, largely allowing NHS England to set the agenda (and where possible take the blame), and enabling Simon Stevens to pursue the Five Year Forward View without interference.
One early test of Hancock’s approach will be how he approaches relations with the medical community. A cursory glance on most social feeds will show many celebrating Hunt’s move, and his high-profile spat with junior doctors is undoubtedly one of the key flashpoints of his tenure. Whilst there is an opportunity for Hancock to seek to distance himself from Hunt’s often fractious relationship with NHS professionals, he still faces the same riddle that many of his predecessors have failed to solve: how can you deliver meaningful policy reform that doesn’t alienate the people who will be required to enact it?
All eyes will now be on Hancock to see how he handles the numerous competing pressures on the health service, and whether he rises to the challenge of this considerable promotion.