New health secretary, new reforms for the NHS?

The fact that Andrew Lansley has lost his role as Health Secretary in the ministerial reshuffle has come as no great surprise. His unpopularity within the NHS, as well as his lack of communications skill whilst trying to drive through his reforms had sealed his fate some time ago. To his credit though, he was at least respected for his detailed knowledge of the NHS and his long service both in government and opposition. The same can’t be said of Jeremy Hunt who has no track record with the NHS and whose new appointment as Health Secretary, effectively placing him as a leader of one of the largest organisations in the world, is surrounded by controversy.

Jeremy Hunt had come under scrutiny in recent months in his position as secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport, because of the role played by one of his special advisors in News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB and his links to the Murdoch family. Some are already joking that he may sell off the NHS to NewsCorp! A view echoed by the deputy chairman of the British Medical Association, Dr Kailash Chand, who said on Twitter shortly before the new Health Secretary was appointed: “Very likely replacement is Jeremy Hunt – I fear [a] more toxic right winger [who is likely] to follow [the] privatisation agenda. The disaster in NHS carries on.” Their concerns are not unfounded, with social media sites posting the link to a book that Jeremy Hunt co-authored calling for the de-nationalisation of the NHS.

On top of all this, Hunt is also under fire for backing the use of homeopathy to treat illnesses and for reportedly trying to remove a tribute to the NHS from the Olympics opening ceremony. So why would the prime minister make such a controversial choice and give Jeremy Hunt perhaps the toughest job in British politics?

Hunt, in his previous role, can pride himself in helping deliver a fantastic Olympic Games to London and is highly regarded by David Cameron. Secondly, unlike Lansley, Jeremy Hunt is a great communicator, whose main task will be to sell the reforms so shambolically initiated by his predecessor. Hunt will have to lead the sweeping structural changes to the NHS, at a time of unprecedented financial constraint and face up to the social care funding problem. However, the national newspapers such as The Telegraph have already recognised that Hunt has ‘an opportunity to make history’. He must show real leadership, persuade people of the need for change, and inspire people with a vision of a better health service.

According to the chief executive of a major charity, this is his “chance for a big charm offensive” with NHS staff as well as the public, and that he has the potential to help the NHS cut costs, with staff on side rather than resentful.

Only time will tell if this turns out to be true as the task ahead is huge, Hunt is used to working with a £2 billion budget compared to the NHS budget which is in excess of £100 billion.

As professor Chris Ham, chief executive of the King’s Fund health think-tank, warned: “Jeremy Hunt takes up his post with the NHS performing well after years of investment and reform. However, fundamental changes in the way care is delivered are needed if the NHS is to respond to the demands of an ageing population, changing burden of disease and rising patient expectations.”

Will Jeremy Hunt show political leadership to resist his opponents and drive through difficult reforms that will ensure the survival of the NHS in the future? Somehow, I doubt it and I don’t appear to be alone with my skepticism, with close to 100,000 people signing an open letter that warns: “As you begin your new job as Health Secretary, we want you to know that we’re watching you…We’ll challenge you every step of the way if you try to do our NHS any further harm.”

With the next general election looming, making unpopular decisions especially around the sacred institution that is the NHS would be the equivalent to political suicide.

What do health tech leaders want from the general election campaign?
Secrets from the algorithm: insights from Google’s Search Content Warehouse API leak
What will the general election mean for the NHS and health tech?
Back to (business school) basics
NHS finances: cuts get real