Jeremy Hunt tells NHS bosses who are rationing care not to make 'easy' choices

The Health Secretary also dropped his claim that the NHS had been given all the money it requested – admitting it was only enough to “get going” on a restructuring plan.

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Jeremy Hunt has accused local health chiefs who are rationing treatments after running out of money of making “easy” choices.

The Health Secretary dismissed recent controversies - involving hip and knee replacements, eye surgery and fertility treatment – insisting it was perfectly possible to both “improve care and make efficiencies”.

The comment came as Mr Hunt came close to admitting that Theresa May had told him the NHS will receive no extra money in this Parliament.

He also dropped his much-criticised claim that the NHS had been given all the money it asked for – admitting it was only enough to “get going” on a restructuring plan.

Meanwhile, the Commons Health Select Committee was also told that funding-per-head in England will actually be cut in 2018-19.

The committee heard evidence from both Mr Hunt and Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, amid growing concern about a gathering storm in the health service.

The National Audit Office has warned that, without proper funding and tough efficiencies, “the result will be some combination of worse services, fewer staff, deficits, and restrictions on new treatments”

In recent months, there have been protests that patients are waiting up to 15 months for cataract surgery, that IVF treatment is being axed in many areas, and similar controversies about orthopaedic care.

Sarah Wollaston, the committee’s Conservative chairman, pointed out to Mr Hunt that there were “numerous examples of rationing”, adding: “This is happening on a widespread scale.”

But the Health Secretary said: “I don’t accept that, in order to make those efficiency savings, you have to make changes that will have an impact negatively on patient care

“There is of course an easy way to make savings – which is to reduce the availability of care for patients

“But there is a harder way, but the right way, which is to find ways that improve care and improve efficiency at the same time.”

Mr Hunt insisted the Department of Health did not allow rationing that made care worse for patients, telling the committee: “We step in.”

Last month, Mr Stevens warned that much of a promised extra £10 billion each year for the NHS has been “back-ended to 2020”, which made tough choices inevitable in the intervening years.

It was only in 2016-17 that the NHS was getting “broadly what we asked for” – which meant that, between 2017 and 2020, the Government was providing less cash than requested.

Yet ministers had repeatedly dismissed warnings of a crisis on the basis that the NHS had been “given the money it asked for” – and that the cash injection was “frontloaded”.

Today, Mr Hunt changed tack, acknowledging the NHS had only been given the cash “they said they needed to get going” - to “kick-start” the five-year transformation plan.

Emphasising the hard years ahead, Mr Stevens said there would be “negative per person funding” – a per capita cut – in the financial year 2018-19.

At the weekend, it was reported that Theresa May insisted there would be no extra cash for the NHS in next month’s Autumn Statement.

Asked if that was correct, Mr Hunt replied: “It was a private meeting.”