Jeremy Hunt has been accused of trying to politicise the Paris terror attacks after it emerged his officials helped orchestrate a letter from the NHS chief medic questioning whether striking junior doctors would be available to help in the event of a major incident in the UK.
Junior doctors were outraged in November when Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of NHS England, wrote to the British Medical Association asking what would happen if a strike coincided with a terror attack on the UK.
It has now emerged that Hunt’s officials were consulted on drafts of the letter and spoke of a plan to highlight his concerns in the media. They also asked for it to be as “hard edged as possible” regarding concerns about the strike.
The exchanges, first revealed by the Independent, are likely to infuriate junior doctors still further ahead of the first in a series of planned strikes next week over changes to their contracts.
They show the health secretary was given approval on the text of the letter and that it went through a number of revisions to ensure concerns about the possible impact of a major incident during the strike were hardened up.
In the redacted emails, Bruce was told by an unnamed official: “I am sure then that [Jeremy Hunt] will be interested to see the proposed final product; my hope is that if you are happy to make these changes we will be able to get him over the line.”
Hunt agreed Keogh would not be asked to speak to the media on the day the strike was declared so long as his letter underlined his opposition to the walk out, it added.
The letter was sent within a week of the Paris terror attack and published online on the day a strike by junior doctors was announced, which was later cancelled while further talks took place.
It is understood that Keogh first raised concerns about contingency planning for the possible event of strike on the day of a terror attack and Hunt was keen for him to seek reassurances.
After the letter was made public, around 3,000 junior doctors wrote to Keogh accusing him of using fears of a terror attack for “political purposes” and saying his concerns were “not in keeping with the inherent duty that junior doctors have to serve the public”.
Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb also raised concerns about political interference. He said: “This revelation raises serious concerns about potential political interference with the independent medical director of NHS England.
“Jeremy Hunt must explain exactly who was involved in toughening up of language in this letter. My fear is that this will damage trust between the government and junior doctors still further.
“We need a cross-party commission to look at how we secure the long term future of the NHS and social care, but Jeremy Hunt must now immediately get back around the negotiating table and resolve this dispute with junior doctors that are such an integral part of our NHS.”
Responding to the release of the emails, Keogh said that it was “entirely appropriate” that the NHS, the Department of Health and hospitals had “co-ordinated the operational response” to the strike threat.
A Department of Health spokesman said it was “completely right that the Department expressed a view on communication with the BMA”.
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