May to give NHS 'significant' cash boost, Jeremy Hunt reveals

Exclusive: health secretary says PM 100% committed to NHS in Guardian interview

Theresa May has decided to give the beleaguered NHS a “significant increase” in its budget to coincide with the service’s 70th birthday in July, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt has revealed.

The prime minister intends to ramp up spending in order to show that the Conservatives can be trusted to run the NHS and because it needs extra cash to tackle chronic understaffing, cope with the ageing population and improve care, Hunt said.

May will fulfil her pledge of a “long-term plan” for NHS funding by ditching the austerity-era 1% annual rises it has received since 2010, the health and social care secretary told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.

“She is unbelievably committed. You should not underestimate how committed she is to the NHS. So she is absolutely 100% behind getting this right,” Hunt said.

“I’ve been making the NHS’s case that we need significant and sustainable funding increases to meet the demographic challenges we face, and the prime minister completely appreciates that.

Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May speak to patients during a discussion as they visit the renal transplant unit at the Royal Liverpool University hospital, Liverpool, in October 2017.
Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May speak to patients during a discussion as they visit the renal transplant unit at the Royal Liverpool University hospital, Liverpool, in October 2017. Photograph: Reuters

“Now the economy is back on its feet and growing much more healthily we’re able to have a discussion for the first time about [a] significant increase in resources, and that presents enormous opportunity for the country in terms of the type of NHS that our children and grandchildren will experience,” Hunt added.

In an interview to mark him becoming the longest-serving health secretary in history, Hunt also:

• Admitted that he is unlikely to be able to fulfil his pledge, first made in 2015, to boost the number of GPs in England by 5,000 by 2020.

• Said “patient safety in the NHS is still deeply flawed”, despite his five-year crusade to make it the world’s safest healthcare system. He said too many staff remained “terrified” to speak out about mistakes in case they get disciplined or sacked, despite his efforts to protect whistleblowers.

• Accepted that Britain’s decision to leave the EU had contributed to the NHS’s widespread staff shortages.

Hunt spoke amid an ongoing cabinet battle over how big a boost to NHS spending May will be able to unveil in the run-up to the 70th anniversary, on 5 July, of its creation in 1948. He has been urging the PM to make it as close as possible to the 4% annual increases the NHS enjoyed before the coalition came to power in 2010. But the Treasury believes that anything above 2%-2.5% is unaffordable.

Hunt said he favours a 10-year plan for substantial annual budget NHS rises and dismissed as unviable continuing with the recent policy of small increases and emergency injections of cash. “We have to recognise that we have a once-in-a-generation challenge and the choice we have as a country is: are we going to deal with that challenge in an ad hoc way, living hand to mouth year in year out, or are we going to look at this strategically?”

Asked how he has been trying to persuade May to embrace far greater NHS investment, Hunt stressed his belief that it could boost Tory electoral fortunes and neutralise an issue Labour regards as a trump card.

“The NHS remains for the vast majority of people, in poll after poll, the most important public service.

“So what’s the argument I make? One of them is that as a Conservative politician I feel passionately that the Conservative vision has to be about delivering the highest quality public services. People generally think of Conservatives as competent and they need to see that competence in action in delivering the public services that matter to everyone,” he added.

The NHS should use extra funding to improve cancer survival rates, which lag behind those in France and Germany; integrate health and social care; transform mental health services; and cut the number of babies stillborn or born brain-damaged through failings of maternity care, Hunt said.

Last Sunday he became the longest serving health secretary – with five years and 273 days in the job. He succeeded Andrew Lansley, the architect of widely-condemned NHS reforms, in September 2012.

His tenure has included the first-ever strikes by junior doctors, attacks on the medical profession, claims he is privatising the NHS, a series of NHS winter crises, hospitals becoming unable to meet key treatment waiting time targets and a major drive to improve patient safety in the wake of the Mid Staffordshire care scandal.

Doctors hold up protest signs while striking outside St Thomas’ hospital in April 2016.
Doctors hold up protest signs while striking outside St Thomas’ hospital in April 2016. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

In remarks that risk reopening Tory divisions over Brexit, Hunt also said Britain’s decision to leave the EU had contributed to the NHS’s widespread staff shortages. The number of nurses and midwives from EU27 nations coming to work in the UK fell 87% last year while the number leaving Britain rose 28%, official figures showed in April.

“[That] tells us sadly what we knew at the start of this process, which is: this is a time of great uncertainty and that’s going to have an impact on much-valued EU staff who work in the NHS. It’s inevitable that, faced with the headlines that Brexit has created over the last few years, it’s going to be challenging in this period of negotiations [for the NHS to recruit EU nationals]. People read the headlines and inevitably they worry.”

However, settling Britain’s relationship with Europe post-Brexit should resume the supply of EU27 health staff, Hunt added.

In a major U-turn, the MP for South West Surrey also admitted that he is unlikely to be able to fulfil his pledge, first made in 2015, to boost the number of GPs in England by 5,000 by 2020.

NHS workforce figures show that the total number of family doctors has fallen by just over 1,000 since Hunt made what many warned was a promise that would be impossible to meet.

“We do need 5,000 more GPs and we are struggling to deliver that pledge, but I’m absolutely determined to do so because GPs are working incredibly hard; too hard. I got quite widely ridiculed when I made the pledge in 2015. I wanted to nail my colours to the mast of getting more GPs into the system. But it has been harder than we thought,” Hunt admitted.

He blamed the drop in GP numbers of family doctors retiring early, in their 50s and 60s. “This is not a pledge that we’re abandoning because it’s a very, very important pledge for the NHS and with general practice. It’s just taking a bit longer than I had hoped.”

Hunt said that lack of staff was “the biggest priority that we have now. It’s a huge challenge to ramp up our staffing in the NHS.” The NHS needs a long-term funding settlement so it can recruit more staff to help deal with the extra need for care a 1m rise in the number of over-75s in the next decade will bring, added Hunt, who has boosted the number of trainee doctors, nurses and midwives.

He said that NHS workers should be reassured that he was committed to tackling understaffing and that it would “give some hope to NHS staff”, who put in “heroic” efforts to care for patients.

“They need to know that, yes, you might have one bad winter but it’s not going to be a permanent [series of] nightmarish winters and it’s not going to be a winter that lasts 12 months of the year, as in Game of Thrones.”

Told that some Tory MPs believe that success in his efforts to “save” the NHS could make him a good prime minister, Hunt smiled and replied: “Well I think saving the NHS is a lifetime’s work. I don’t think it’ll leave much space for anything else and I’m very flattered that you should ask the question.”

Asked to respond to critics who fear the NHS in not safe in his hands, Hunt said: “I would say: judge me by my results. What I want is a strong NHS delivering the highest standards of care anywhere in the world and that is true to the founding values of the NHS, and I hope that looking back on my time as health secretary people can see that actually the foundations for that change were laid in the period that I was health secretary.”


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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