The health secretary will have to “examine his conscience” about staying in the cabinet because improvements he initiated after the Mid Staffs scandal are under threat, said Prof Chris Ham, the head of the King’s Fund thinktank.
“Hunt now faces unpalatable choices about the direction of health policy, akin to the dilemmas that led Iain Duncan Smith to resign as work and pensions secretary. Just as Duncan Smith felt his mission to reform welfare was undermined by budget cuts, so Hunt’s ambition to improve quality of care is at risk from financial constraints.
“He will have to examine his conscience if funding pressures mean a reversal of policies to improve patient care that he was instrumental in developing”, Ham writes in an article for the Guardian.
Potential cuts to their workforces by hospital trusts in order to help balance the books could undermine efforts to ensure safe care. “This will be a personal challenge for Jeremy Hunt, who has led the drive to ensure safe staffing levels.”
With the health service’s planned 1% budget rises in the next few years not enough to meet rising demand “it is not credible to expect it to survive in its present form under these financial pressures”, adds Ham, who was a member of the coalition government’s shortlived NHS “kitchen cabinet” in 2011-12.
Ministers refuse to acknowledge that the NHS has too little money to do its job properly, much less expand into a seven-day service, he claims. Ham writes: “The risk ... is there will be a continuing decline in NHS performance with cuts in staff, compromises to quality of care and patients waiting longer for treatment. Observing the NHS today is like watching a car crash about to happen.”
In the new edition of the Health Service Journal, its editor, Alastair McLellan, writes that Hunt “knows the end is near” of his three-and-a-half year stint as health secretary and appears “eager for the sweet release of a reshuffle”.
Labour claimed that Hunt seemed “blind” to the NHS’s escalating financial crisis. “Jeremy Hunt talks a good game about patient care, but his actions tell a very different story”, said Lord Hunt, the shadow health minister.
“Nobody believes his plan to impose £22bn of efficiency savings on the NHS won’t put patient care at risk. The financial pressures he is putting hospitals under is going to lead to cuts in staff, closure of services and rationing of treatment. This will be bad for the NHS and, ultimately, bad for patients too.”
The Department of Health declined to respond to Ham’s comparison of Hunt to Duncan Smith. A spokesman said only that: “We are investing £10bn to fund the NHS’s own five-year plan – more than the NHS estimated it needed, including nearly £4bn just this year.
“Delivering high quality, safe care and maintaining a grip on finances go hand in hand. It isn’t an either-or choice that NHS leaders should be making.”
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