NHS crisis: Five problems Jeremy Hunt has left for his successor to deal with

Departing health and social care secretary leaves at a turning point in NHS fortunes, but with many promises unfulfilled

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 11 July 2018 09:58
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Jeremy Hunt replaces Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary

He served for five years and 308 days as health secretary - a long time in politics - but Jeremy Hunt’s record breaking tenure saw him oversee a notable funding and staffing crisis.

However, his final act of securing a £20bn budget increase for health by 2023 was better than many dared hope for – though less than experts said was needed.

His successor, Matt Hancock, joins at a turning point in the health service’s fortunes and Mr Hunt has left more than a few problems for his successor at the Department of Health and Social Care.

Here The Independent looks at the issues he might face.

Social Care

When Theresa May announced the NHS would receive a Brexit windfall of £385m a week in five years time was the silence on social care – a recent addition to Mr Hunt’s brief.

More than 1.4 million people over the age of 65 are currently unable to access support despite having an identified need for assistance with basic tasks like getting dressed and washing, the charity Age UK revealed earlier this week.

This unmet need has risen 19 per cent since 2015.

Without support many people become trapped in hospital. Being unable to free up beds occupied by patients well enough to go home costs the NHS £289m a year.

A pledged green paper plan had been promised by Summer 2018 but this has been pushed back and Mr Hancock will have to be very creative or very friendly with the Treasury to solve this growing crisis.

Staffing black hole

Jeremy Hunt has pledged 5,000 more GPs by 2020 and 25 per cent increases in places for trainee nurses and doctors during this parliament.

This, he said, would make the NHS “self-sufficient”.

But “grim” workforce figures published by the NHS in February laid bare the challenge with 100,000 NHS posts unfilled in hospitals, ambulance and mental health trusts alone.

Jeremy Corbyn confronts Theresa May on how much social care budget has been cut

Latest figures show after three years he is currently 1,000 GPs further away from his target, and applications to study nursing continue to fall in the wake of the removal of bursaries.

A pay deal for nurses, paramedics and a million non-medical NHS staff will help restore some of the goodwill that the health service has been run on for the past eight years.

But intensive dialysis will be needed for the bad blood that remains from Mr Hunt's feud with the junior doctors and Brexit threatens to undo efforts to shore up staff numbers by searching overseas.

Jeremy Corbyn attacks Theresa May over NHS staff shortages, cuts and privatisation

Waiting times

Additional money pledged in 2017 Autumn Budget was given with the express condition that it would be used to help the NHS recover performance on waiting times standards.

But that was before its worst winter in history.

In March Labour analysis found the number of people waiting more than four hours in A&E each month has increased by 842 per cent under Jeremy Hunt’s tenure.

Overall the NHS waiting list has increased by 1.4 million and the number of patients waiting more than two weeks for urgent cancer treatment more than doubled, to 113,373 in 2017/18.

The 18-week target for patients to be treated after a GP referral has not been hit since 2016. Don’t expect much movement here until the crisis in social care and workforce is solved.

Theresa May apologises for NHS delays and cancellations amid Winter Crisis

Obesity and public health

Like social care this has suffered from being outside the NHS funding ring-fence of the last eight years, moving to local authorities in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act reforms.

The recently introduced “sugar tax” of sweetened drinks is a major part of the government’s plans to address a crisis of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 10 per cent of NHS spending.

However many community schemes have been lost in recent years, along with cuts to smoking cessation schemes, addiction services and sexual health clinics.

Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall call for childhood obesity action

Paperless NHS

There are many other issues in the NHS, from cancer survival rates (among the worst in Europe) to the crisis in mental health, but NHS England has plans to address these that will benefit from extra funding.

One area Mr Hancock might be able to bring his past experience at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to bear is in delivering one of Jeremy Hunt’s earliest ambitions - ending the NHS reliance on fax machines and paper notes.

Mr Hunt had to concede his “paperless NHS by 2018” pledge had been missed, but as the only MP to develop his own app, Mr Hancock arrives in the nick of time - and just before the health service launches its own app for booking GP appointments and viewing patient records.

However there is friction about how the NHS can adapt to harness video chat and AI, among other tech solutions flooding the health sphere, as well as the ever sensitive issue of the sharing of medical data for the new incumbent to solve.

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