By Carl Packman on 1 Apr 2015
Jeremy Hunt needs a lesson in PR
Yesterday the Health Service Journal exclusively “revealed” that a leading report has called for NHS board members to be paid up £1m in bonuses. Anyone quicker than me at spotting anagrams will guess the nature of the article on April 1st by the new author Alf Poorli.
I hold my hands up. It fooled me (I had to re-edit this part for a start). But the best April Fools’ are the most believable.
What the HSJ has done very cleverly, though, is produce a joke that seems almost believable in a world where nothing is shocking anymore. It’s also very clever because of the controversy of the report it quotes from. As many will know, there have been a lot of guessing games about what will feature in the Lord Rose report on NHS management, and lots of questions asking why the Department of Health has yet to publish it.
So what’s the controversy with the report?
Jeremy Hunt, the health minister, appointed Lord (Stuart) Rose in February 2014 to advise the NHS on how to “attract and retain the very best leaders to help transform the culture in under-performing hospitals”.
In December last year, reports say, Lord Rose had completed and submitted his report. One source who had been present in meetings about the report, was quoted by the Financial Times saying the report is currently “on the backburner of the backburner”. Why?
The Department of Health released a statement to say that it never did have a date to publish the Rose Report. Furthermore, in a response to an FOI request regarding the report, the DH replied:
“In general, there is a strong public interest in information being made as freely available as possible. However, further work is currently taking place on the [Rose] review to reflect an expanded remit to take into account the NHS Five Year Forward View publication.”
But suspicions are aroused by other senior government officials, quoted in among other places The Guardian, making it known that Rose’s report is strongly critical of management systems in the NHS.
The same Guardian article highlights “suggestions that the report implies that the government’s own NHS reforms … have made matters worse”.
What has resulted? A disastrous, cross-political rallying call for Hunt to publish the document, followed by accusations of a political cover-up, shortly before an election centred around the NHS.
Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, scored an easy open-goal by saying in an open letter addressed to Hunt:
“The official reason for the delay in publication given by your Department was the need to reconsider its remit in the light of the Five-year Forward View. I find this statement both puzzling and implausible. The Forward View was published on 23 October; the Rose Report was submitted to the Department on 23 December 2014. This means there was plenty of time for the conclusions of the former to influence the latter.”
In his open letter Mr Burnham was able to quote the chair of the Health Select Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Conservative Member of Parliament for Totnes, as saying “it would not be acceptable for a report paid for with public funds to be withheld from publication before the General Election”.
Dr Wollaston repeated this at a Health Chat event with Roy Lilley recently at the King’s Fund, saying frankly: “Where you have data paid for by public money, it should be published.”
Very uniquely, ‘Rose-gate’, as we should call it from now on, has united an unlikely group of bedfellows, including the “progressive” campaigns organisation 38 Degrees, and the right-wing pressure group TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Why is it rather surprising?
It is surprising because Jeremy Hunt has previously managed to quite expertly ‘own’ NHS-related controversies.
In 2013, following the A&E crisis, Jeremy Hunt, held his hands up and said that he’d failed to “give the public confidence that there’s anything between GP surgeries and A&E”. The same could still be said now, but in response to that crisis Hunt announced that there would be a fundamental review of emergency care.
Earlier this year, amid yet another A&E crisis, Hunt seized news of some pilot schemes in places such as Birmingham, Arden, and Herefordshire and Worcestershire that showed how when GP surgeries are opened for weekend hours the number of patients turning up to A&E departments fell.
Sure, A&E crises will still stick to the health minister, but the point is Hunt faced the head-on. He may even have convinced some people.
So how could ‘Rose-gate’ have been ‘owned’?
First of all, the Rose report clearly does have bad news for the health minister, so things aren’t rosey (excuse the pun). But by putting the report on the backburner, Hunt has given a massive opportunity to Labour’s Andy Burnham.
Had Hunt published the report in order properly deal with the accusations, he could at least have shown himself to be taking measures to tackle management inefficiency head-on.
He certainly would have had the time. His department would have factored in time to review the report after it was submitted in December, and prepare a response at the same time as its eventual release. But as there was radio silence on the report, subsequently there were leaks of the findings in February and the accusations started. When it was known that the report wouldn’t be published until after the election, we could all smell a rat.
The one thing worse than criticism, is looking like you’re trying to hide criticism. Rather than slyly slip it under the carpet, it gave his shadow a golden opportunity. Clearly Mr Hunt needs a lesson in PR.