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The Jeremy Hunt interview: Covid, health care, and what I'd have done differently from Boris Johnson

(Image | Baldo Sciacca)

10 min read

Jeremy Hunt wants to ensure the lessons of the pandemic aren’t forgotten. He tells Eleanor Langford where he sees the future of the NHS – and the part he’d like to play in it.

Jeremy Hunt’s Westminster office is littered with the trappings of a former minister. Spread along the windowsill, which frames an expansive view of the Thames, are dozens of photographs in which he poses alongside world leaders from Angela Merkel to Donald Trump, alongside more snaps of him with celebrities and royalty.

The mementos are a testament to the decade spent at the heart of Cabinet across two Prime Ministers. Hunt holds the enviable accolades of being both the culture secretary that oversaw the 2012 London Olympics and the longest-serving health secretary in British history. He has also held one of the great offices of state, as foreign secretary between 2018 and 2019.

It is his six years at health that he has taken with him to the backbenches as chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee. His appointment to the job in early 2020 raised eyebrows, with some questioning how Hunt could question policies he himself had implemented.

But the South West Surrey MP suggests he sees his current role as about unfinished business from his time leading the NHS, particularly on issues such as social care.

“I fought hard to get the 10-year plan for the NHS that we needed, and the £20 billion in the NHS budget. At the same time I said we should have a similar plan for social care. I was told you can't have both at the same time; do the NHS first then we'll come to social care,” he tells The House magazine.

“Unfortunately, I was then moved to foreign secretary and we had all the Brexit issues and the fall of Theresa May's government. So, for understandable reasons, it didn't happen.”

Alongside tying up loose ends, Hunt has also used his time as Health Committee chair to scrutinise the government’s coronavirus response. His committee’s 150-page report — ‘Coronavirus: lessons learned to date’ — was published in October 2021, setting the stage for the government’s own inquiry set to start six months later. 

The assessment was largely damning, calling the delayed decision to impose lockdown restrictions one of the “most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”. It also criticised the government for being too focused on a potential influenza pandemic prior to 2020 — a failure that partly lies at former health secretary Hunt’s door.

“We were recognised globally as the second-best prepared system in the world by Johns Hopkins University in their global health security index. We did work very hard on pandemic preparation,” he insists.

“But we can see now, in retrospect, it's very important to be honest about the lessons that need to be learned. We were over-prepared for a flu-like pandemic and unprepared for a SARS-like pandemic.”

I wouldn’t have made some of his mistakes, but I'm sure I'd have made different mistakes.

Hunt says his biggest takeaway from the pandemic has been the danger of “groupthink”. He maintains that there was an “understanding amongst the medical and scientific establishment” that flu was the next big challenge coming down the line, a view “shared by the politicians who were responsible for everything”.

Despite the apparent failures of the early stages of the pandemic, Hunt is measured in his criticism of Boris Johnson’s administration.

“I wouldn’t have made some of his mistakes, but I'm sure I'd have made different mistakes. That's the nature of the job. Handling a pandemic when you're Prime Minister is one of the most difficult things you can do.”

Now, as the UK looks – hopefully – towards the tail end of the pandemic, both Hunt and the government are contemplating the next challenge — the growing backlog of patients waiting for care. His committee warned in a report earlier this month that as many as 5.8 million people were currently waiting for NHS treatment, 300,000 of whom had been waiting more than a year.

Hunt says we can “give the government credit” for paying the “political price” of raising taxes to help find the money to tackle the backlog, a move unpopular among many of the Conservatives’ core voters. 

“You can see lots of voices in The Telegraph and the Daily Mail question whether we should be increasing national insurance, as is going to happen in April,” he says.

“My biggest concern is that the money will end up being wasted unless we put alongside it a plan to increase the capacity, particularly in the workforce, to deliver all those additional operations, and there's been no sign of any workforce plan.”

The committee’s report also concluded that lack of staff was central to the challenges facing the NHS. It pointed to a “burnt-out workforce” with “93,000 vacancies,” a number that would likely grow if current staff could see a "light at the end of the tunnel".

“We have a fantastically dedicated staff throughout the health and social care system. And we have asked an enormous amount of them in the last couple of years with a pandemic — more than you could reasonably ask anyone,” Hunt says.

“That has shone a spotlight on the fact we have shortages in nearly every specialty, which actually predated the pandemic.”

If staffing shortages were a problem before the pandemic, why didn’t Hunt tackle them during his time leading the Department? He argues that, despite his best efforts, greater transparency is needed if ministers hope to fill NHS vacancies.

“When health secretaries are negotiating spending settlements with chancellors, the number of doctors that you have in 10-years-time is rarely a priority for either,” he says.

I set up five new medical schools and I increased the number of doctors we trained by a quarter. That was the right thing to do, but even I don't know whether that was enough.

“It takes 10 years to train a GP, seven years to train a doctor, three years to train a nurse. When you add in the time it takes to get medical schools to put on the places you need, you’re really talking about a decade's long process.”

He continues: “I set up five new medical schools and I increased the number of doctors we trained by a quarter. That was the right thing to do, but even I don't know whether that was enough. That's why I think we need to have an independent process that everyone can see.”

NHS staff “know there's no silver bullet” for the staffing crisis, he adds, but the government could “at least look them in the eye and say, we have got a long-term plan in place”.

One proposed way to formulate that plan would be better forecasting. Hunt had hoped to achieve this via an amendment to the Health and Care Bill — currently progressing through Parliament — calling for “forecasters to publish the numbers of doctors and nurses that we should be training”.

Under his plan, independent assessments would be published every two years setting out the current and future workforce needs for the health and social care sector. The amendment received cross-party support and was backed by more than 60 industry organisations but was ultimately rejected by 280 votes to 219 in the Commons last month.

But Hunt has not let go of the idea, warning that without the move the government is “going to waste literally billions of pounds”.

“The £6 billion a year we spend on locum doctors and agency nurses — that is a direct consequence of our failure to train enough doctors and nurses,” he says.

Tackling the staffing crisis in the NHS is a long-term project, but there’s plenty that Hunt would like to see done in the health field right away. One is ensuring the health service can respond to high pressure situations — like a global pandemic — without compromising non-emergency care.

“In the first year of the pandemic 45,000 fewer people started cancer treatment. Unfortunately, people have died as a result of that,” Hunt says.

He sees a “direction of travel” for the NHS involving the introduction of “hot sites” and “cold sites,” — “separate buildings, one for planned care and one for emergency care”.

“The pandemic has settled the argument in favour of saying we do need cold sites where planned care can continue irrespective of the number of people coming into A&E,” he adds.

Next on the agenda, Hunt proposes, should be a return to a traditional model of the GP-patient relationship. He says the current set up, where a doctor rarely knows the people they treat, is a “huge step backwards,” and warrants review.

We need to look at what it is that makes medicine rewarding for the wonderful people who decide to go into it.

“We need to look at what it is that makes medicine rewarding for the wonderful people who decide to go into it. And at the heart of it is their relationship with their own patients.”

Westminster and the news agenda has been dominated in recent weeks by discussion of “partygate”. On the day we speak, more revelations about gatherings at Downing Street and beyond appear to be breaking by the hour, and the Prime Minister’s position is looking increasingly shaky. Does Hunt think this is distracting the government from the challenges facing the NHS?

“I think the issues around ‘partygate’ are substantive issues,” he responds carefully. “They are important issues and we're now waiting for the results of the independent inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened.

“But I think that come the next general election, progress on the NHS is going to be the most important thing in people's minds.”

“Even outside pandemics, the NHS was [invariably] the most important or one of the top three issues in people's minds. And for all of us, health is the single most important thing. It's the foundation of everything else. 

“It's really important that we focus on the long-term changes that we need, if we want the NHS to offer the safest, highest quality care in the world.”

I won't say my ambition has completely vanished, but it would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring.

With Johnson’s reputation and authority as Prime Minister taking a beating in recent weeks, thoughts have begun to turn to who could succeed him. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are among the bookies' favourites. Other names in circulation include Michael Gove, Priti Patel - and Hunt himself.

The then-foreign secretary went head-to-head against Johnson in the final round of the 2019 leadership race triggered by the resignation of then-PM Theresa May. He was backed by a third of Conservative members in the final round of voting – a respectable showing but far short of victory.

If Johnson were to stand down in the next few months or even weeks, would Hunt run again? “I wasn't expecting to leave the government in 2019, but I've enjoyed being on the backbenches much more than I thought,” he muses.

“I won't say my ambition has completely vanished, but it would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring."

For now, he hopes the government can “weather this storm and there isn’t a leadership election”. He offers praise for his beleaguered leader, adding, “we have to give Boris great credit” for his successes with the vaccine programme and securing a Brexit deal.

Perhaps some of his hesitation comes from the fact that, as a veteran of the Cabinet himself, he knows the challenges a Prime Minister is up against.

"I've seen that job up close and personal. It is a very, very challenging and difficult job.”

And so, whilst I can understand why people want it, I think that most people who've experienced closely the reality of just how tough it is to be our prime minister would pause before rushing to try and grab the mantle."

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