The standoff began two weeks ago after Hunt’s appearance on The Andrew Marr Show, when Hunt stated that the NHS had overseen “the biggest expansion of mental health provision in Europe”.
Little, best known for his role as Anthony in the sitcom The Royle Family, accused the health secretary in a tweet of “knowingly lying” to the public about statistics and told Hunt to sue him if he was wrong.
Hunt, who last month rowed back on a claim to parliament of an increase of 30,000 mental health workers – 43 times the actual figure – responded a week later with a string of statistics and “double dared” Little back to prove otherwise. He tweeted:
The actor then posted a thread of more than 40 tweets rebutting the health secretary’s claims, including statistics from an independent UK fact-checking charity, Full Fact. That thread has been shared more than 15,000 times.
The argument has since rolled on. Hunt on Monday replied with a series of 26 tweets of his own (although losing the chronology in the middle of the thread, making it difficult to follow). “Now I know you are a funny bloke and in politics a lot of insults are traded but the question is can you back up what is a very strong claim?” he asked Little, referring back to his “lying to the public” comment.
“To fill the gap [in mental health staffing levels] we now have 8,000 MH nurses in training and have this Sept announced an increase in nurse training places overall by 25%.”
Hunt also quoted from a New York Times article from July, which has been corrected three times after the former shadow minister for mental health, Luciana Berger, challenged its contents.
Speaking to the Guardian, Berger, who is preparing for Tuesday’s health select committee on child and adolescent mental health, said: “The whole premise of that NYT article was wrong. It was based on a claim that the NHS ambition was for a third of the UK population to be treated [with talking therapies], when the real target is a third of people with a mental health condition. That’s a massive difference. The whole article misunderstood our system.
“This ‘aren’t we marvellous’ line in response to a random NYT journalist’s glaring error is wrong. Simon Stevens [the health service chief] and Hunt have both referenced that article in select committee inquiries. And now Hunt has done it again in his tweets.”
Berger also said Hunt had wrongly conflated community mental health nurses with hospital nurses.
Little told the Guardian he felt moved to tweet Hunt after objecting to his use of figures. “I never intended to be in the middle of this debate but here I am.
“It seems that Mr Hunt’s reaction to my accusations of cherrypicking statistics is to counter by … cherrypicking statistics.”
Many have expressed surprise at Hunt’s willingness to debate with Little after his seeming reluctance to engage with NHS frontline staff, in particular junior doctors. In 2016, junior doctors protesting against a new contract slept outside Richmond House, then the Department of Health’s headquarters, in an effort to speak to Hunt. The health secretary took to entering and exiting the building by a back door.
Rachel Clarke, a palliative care junior doctor and campaigner, said: “What on earth is Hunt doing spending time ‘double-daring’ an actor on Twitter when the NHS is approaching full winter crisis? Surely, when morale is rock bottom, he should be reaching out to patients and frontline staff, not members of The Royle Family?
“[Hunt] has never dared debate with a junior doctor on television. He literally ran away from the only doctor he accidentally encountered in front of a film crew, scampering up a staircase to evade him.”
Hunt and Little have since discussed meeting up to talk through the figures, with Hunt saying: “There may be a European country with bigger expansion plans but I have yet to find it. I am sure I don’t get everything right but on the basis of the evidence no reasonable person could describe the claim as ‘knowingly lying’ … I will happily meet you, fact-checkers and all.”
“If he has nothing to hide, he would be happy to meet, right?” Little said to the Guardian.
The Department of Health declined to comment on the online argument.
The row comes in the run-up to the budget on Wednesday, when Philip Hammond is expected to announce an increase in funding for the NHS in part to end the freeze on public sector pay for nurses and other health workers. But the chancellor is not thought to be providing the £4bn cash injection the health service chief, Simon Stevens, says is needed.
“I don’t contest for one moment that the NHS is under pressure. We have been doing some very careful work with the Department of Health, with the NHS, to look at where those pressures are, to look at the capital needs of the NHS, to look at where the particular pressure points around targets are. And we will seek to address those in a sensible and measured and balanced way,” said Hammond.
This article was written by Hannah Jane Parkinson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 22nd November 2017 12.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010