Meet the new boss… same as the old boss?

By Sean O'sullivan, Head of Health and Social Policy, Policy, Employment Relations and Communications on 26 July 2018 Secretary of State for Health

Matt Hancock, the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, used his first keynote speech last week to set out his priorities for the NHS and social care. So what did he have to say and how does this compare to the priorities outlined by his predecessor Jeremy Hunt?

As someone who is still coming to terms with his new job, it was perhaps not surprising that his speech was long on warm words and aspirations and short on specifics. As well as stressing his personal commitment to the NHS, he praised its achievements, and referenced independent experts who have rated the NHS as the best and safest health system in the world.

This message will be welcomed by NHS staff who were more used to Jeremy Hunt comparing the NHS unfavourably to other health systems. The generally upbeat tenor of the speech was striking and perhaps reflects how circumstances have changed over the last five years. Whereas Jeremy Hunt was appointed as health secretary in the wake of the Francis report into failings at Mid-Staffordshire hospital and as the Government’s austerity programme was biting, Matt Hancock begins his tenure with a recently concluded pay agreement for NHS staff and an imminent £20bn boost to NHS funds.  

The new Secretary of State set out three priorities: workforce, technology and prevention. On workforce, he acknowledged how undervalued the NHS workforce often feel and pledged to value and champion staff. He talked about improving the organisation and training of staff and specifically referred to expanding apprenticeships in health and social care. He also challenged the NHS to change its working culture, to become less hierarchical, to break down tribal boundaries between managers and clinicians, to embrace mutual respect, to ensure that NHS leaders are more reflective of the diverse workforce and to tackle bullying and harassment. Nothing much to disagree with here but we’ll have to wait for another day before knowing what this all means in practice. There will however be a consultation on workforce issues, underpinned by a panel of clinical and professional advisers; the RCM will respond to the consultation and we’ll encourage our members to do likewise.

On technology, he was more forthcoming and announced new funding of £400 million to rollout innovative technology in hospitals aimed at improving patient safety and £75 million for electronic systems designed to free up clinician time and to reduce medication errors. The new Secretary of State is something of a tech enthusiast (he has his own Matt Hancock App!) so expect to have more to say about how the NHS utilises new technologies.

Anyone expecting any new initiatives or funding for prevention, the third priority, would have been disappointed as he simply reiterated the importance of empowering people to stay healthy and of integrating health with social care and wider services. Beyond offering a few ideas to make services more holistic, such as reducing over-prescribing in favour of more social prescribing and investing more in primary care and community pharmacies, the speech contained little on prevention that had not already been said by Jeremy Hunt.

In keeping with the broad brush nature of this speech, there were only brief references to specific programmes, such as cancer or mental health and no mention of maternity services. So whereas Jeremy Hunt took a particular interest in the maternity transformation programme, especially in relation to safety, we won’t know yet the extent to which this will be a priority for his successor. The RCM and RCOG are seeking an early meeting with Mr Hancock and this will be high on our list of priorities.