Jeremy Hunt is a canny politician. Even as the NHS has been going to bits all around him – hospitals running out of cash, targets missed, staff on strike – he has managed to maintain a dignified calm, and create the impression that, mostly, things are fine and where they aren’t, well, it’s nothing to do with him.
Yesterday, however, he might have just put his foot in it.
During a debate in the Commons, he told the House that he had taken his children to A&E at the weekend because he “didn’t want to wait until later on to take them to see a GP”.
Most mums and dads would sympathise. There is nothing more frightening than a sick child when you don’t know what’s wrong with them. Mr Hunt didn't go into detail about the particular situation or situations, and the specifics aren’t anyone’s business but his and his family’s.
Most GP surgeries are still closed at the weekend and if a health problem of middling severity arises on a Saturday or a Sunday, many people will go to the place they know will get it sorted: A&E.
We could argue that as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt shouldn’t complain about GP opening hours, he should sort it out.
He would argue he’s doing exactly that. In fact it is one of the Government’s key health policies – a pledge to have seven-day opening of GP surgeries across England by 2020. The proof will be in the pudding, but it's hoped that this will reduce pressure on overwhelmed A&Es, and this is exactly the point Mr Hunt was making.
But in so doing he has not done A&Es any favours – at a time when they could really do with some.
We can forget about 2020 for the time being: winter 2014 is very nearly here, and already our emergency departments – barometers of the health of the entire NHS – are struggling with record numbers of patients.
Health experts warn they can’t take much more and that if we have a bad year for flu, we could see many hospitals forced to temporarily stop taking patients, or cancel routine operations to free up bed space for emergencies. If there was ever a time to try and avoid burdening A&E, if we can, now is it.
The NHS has been struggling for years to take some heat off emergency departments by dislodging the impression that they are there to pick up the tasks your GP surgery doesn’t do at the weekend.
Official NHS advice for non-life threatening problems that arise at the weekend is to call your GP surgery. If it’s open, lucky you, but if it isn’t you will be redirected to an out-of-hours service – often, incidentally, manned by GPs.
These services are not always perfect, but are generally good at sorting those who really need help urgently from those who just need rest and a couple of ibuprofen.
If A&Es are going to cope this winter, people have to know that in non-life threatening situations it’s to these out-of-hours services we must turn – not the red lights of accident and emergency.
That is the guidance; when a parent is worried about their child, of course, it may not count for much, and that is understandable.
We certainly shouldn’t condemn Jeremy Hunt, worried dad, for ignoring it. We should however, question whether Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, should have talked about the fact he did, in the most public of forums, at a most precarious moment for England’s A&Es.Reuse content