By Carl Packman on 12 Feb 2015
Jeremy Hunt’s PR challenge
Last night, health secretary Jeremy Hunt MP faced off against one of his fiercest critics – health commentator Roy Lilley – at a packed Healthchat event at the King’s Fund.
With negative public opinion of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which Hunt’s predecessor Andrew Lansley MP drove through Parliament in the face of fierce opposition from many in the NHS, and Labour’s promise to repeal it, Hunt worked hard to distance himself from this most controversial piece of legislation. He promised there would not be another top-down reorganisation of the health service and integrating health and social care was now the priority.
But Hunt defended the Act, saying that getting rid of Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) had saved the NHS £1.5 billion a year, which was being ploughed back into frontline services.
At one stage almost the entire audience, with some encouragement from Lilley, voted against the existence of the Care Quality Commission, a body that Hunt later enthusiastically defended, calling the return on investment in the CQC “absolutely phenomenal”. He claimed the CQC could be a vehicle for spreading best practice around the NHS.
He also pointed to the importance of data as a powerful tool for getting greater efficiency and better value out of the NHS.
Hunt said the data collected could help CCGs decide how to invest better in preventative care measures for many conditions, including mental health, which they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
Whistleblowing was touched upon following on from Robert Francis’ report and Hunt said he supported the right for people to make complaints, even saying he wished his own civil servants had the courage to raise more issues with him.
Labour has put the NHS at the forefront of its election campaign, producing a ten-year plan for health and care last month, so the onus was on Hunt to show that the Tories prioritise the NHS equally highly.
To do so, he pointed to the fact that Winston Churchill had been backing an NHS-style health reform before 1945 and the Tories had supported the health service since its inception. And he tried to throw cold water on the political heat around health, saying difference between parties was exaggerated and that “underneath the surface, there is a high level of agreement”.
Hunt’s focus on the ‘grassroots’ level of care allows him to speak positively about individuals who are working hard to improve care. Hunt mentioned figures released by Dr Foster on Sunday that showed mortality rates at trusts placed in special measures have decreased more than the national average. He added to this by talking about his visits to some of these trusts, saying: “People are motoring in Medway, Kings Lynn and Colchester.”
Hunt’s emphasis on patient safety, protecting whistleblowers and spreading examples of good practice is hard to argue with. By sticking to these priorities, he has managed to defuse some of the discontent whipped up by the Health and Social Care Act.
The Act has, in many ways, made his job easier. By outsourcing day-to-day responsibility for running the health service to NHS England, Hunt has been able to avoid getting mired in policy debates like his predecessor.
And there’s no doubt that Mr Hunt has a personal demeanour that helps him come across as a likeable, reasonable and clearly very knowledgeable Tory health secretary.
By keeping the NHS ship on a steady course in a still-emerging healthcare ocean, he will have a key role to play between now and May in convincing voters that the Conservatives mean what they say on the NHS.