As the government continues to wage both covert and overt war on the NHS – leading figures in the Cameron and May ministries like Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Greg Clark, and Liam Fox have previously called for dismantling the service, much of the year has been spent in a row with junior doctors which forced a series of strikes, and now draft sustainability and transformation plans outline widespread cuts when the NHS is already underfunded and facing staff shortages hardly helped by Britain’s impending exit from the EU – some civil servants in the Department of Health have turned openly on their supposed leader, Health Secretary and harbinger of death Jeremy Hunt.
Last July, as Hunt began to stress the Tory manifesto concept of a seven-day NHS, he argued that a ‘Monday to Friday’ culture in parts of the service had brought ‘tragic consequences’ including as many as 6,000 ‘avoidable deaths’ every year. ‘If you are admitted to hospital on a Sunday you have a higher chance of dying than if you are admitted on a Wednesday’, the Health Secretary said, before accusing the British Medical Association of being a roadblock to reform and encouraging them to show more than willing when it came to the topic of weekend work.
The BMA, medical professionals, and leading academics all accused Hunt of simplifying the issue, ignoring some of the factors that contributed to weekend death statistics and misinterpreting data which was anyway out of date. As the seven-day NHS took loose form, with plans for local GP surgeries to open over weekends while staffing levels at hospitals would be increased, Hunt embarked on a collision course with junior doctors.
In September he proposed new contracts which would scrap overtime rates while increasing their basic pay. He asserted that the move would be cost neutral, until he was finally forced to admit that those working the longest hours would in fact face a pay cut. Hunt alleged that these long hours were unsafe, and that the existing structure of overtime pay was known within the NHS as ‘danger money’, a claim few within the service were willing to support.
When in February of this year, Hunt said that he would unilaterally impose the new junior doctors’ contracts, the BMA announced three 48-hour strikes across March and April. Finally in May, Hunt and the BMA settled the nine-month dispute, though many junior doctors were left more than a little disgruntled, and Hunt accepted no personal responsibility for the fall out, continuing to blame the BMA while others accused him of prolonging a resolution for the sake of party politics and personal pride.
Now a briefing paper produced by Hunt’s own department has admitted that ‘The link to the weekend effect has not been helpful’ to the cause of seven-day services, although bizarrely it suggests that this is because ‘our insight tells us that patient safety is not top of mind for the public or the workforce’. This peculiar ‘insight’ has received another stern rebuke from Dr Mark Porter, chair of the BMA, who assured ‘Patient safety is very much at the forefront of doctors’ concerns’. The only thing that is clear is that Jeremy Hunt is not helpful, but then whether doing the government’s bidding in favour of News Corporation or laying the ground for a grossly diminished NHS, he was never intended to be.
A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.