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Matt Hancock: Who is the new health secretary and what is he going to do to the NHS?

Promotion for culture secretary echoes predecessor Jeremy Hunt, but comes at a critical juncture in the NHS's history

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 10 July 2018 19:18 BST
Jeremy Hunt replaces Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary

Amid the carnage of Theresa May’s emergency cabinet reshuffle, the studied art of political-forecasting-by-NHS-badge fell by the wayside and Jeremy Hunt called time on his run as longest-serving health secretary in history to fill a Boris-shaped hole.

The prime minister wasted no time appointing Matt Hancock as his successor, moving from Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) secretary to head the Department of Health and Social Care.

Mr Hancock has held a number of ministerial roles since becoming an MP in 2010 but he takes on the health beat at a particularly challenging time.

We take a look at how his past experience might help or hinder him as the man charged with tackling the many problems he faces in the role.

Life before parliament

Born and raised in Cheshire, Mr Hancock has a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford and a masters in economics from Cambridge.

He worked as an economist for the Bank of England, specialising in the housing market, and in 2005 began working as a special advisor to then shadow chancellor George Osborne before becoming his chief of staff.

What it means for the NHS?

While direct NHS experience to date is limited, it could be argued that with a £20bn funding increase wrung from the Treasury by his predecessor to be spent, and much more needed in the Autumn Budget to fund social care, financial aptitude could be an asset.

However, his close ties to the financial world could be seen as black marks by those fearful of the spectre of privatisation, as could his support of 2012’s costly and controversial reorganisation.

MP to front bench

Mr Hancock was elected MP for West Suffolk in 2010, and entered government at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2012.

He also served as minister of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change where he had a minor controversy after chartering a private plane back from a climate change conference.

Mr Hancock rejoined government at DCMS in 2016 and became its head just six months ago, the position held by Jeremy Hunt before he was appointed health secretary in 2012.

His Department of Health biography lists his leadership of the “digital transformation of government” as a key achievement, though he is best known for being the first MP to launch an app.

Michael Howard on Theresa May no confidence

The Matt Hancock MP app, as it is imaginatively known, is a place for his constituents to ask questions and keep up with his activities, including a video of him trying his hand at parkour.

What it means for the NHS?

Shifting the NHS from its reliance on fax machines and paper records was one of several commitments Jeremy Hunt has left unfinished – after pledging it would be “paperless by 2018”.

There are also a number of tech startups looking to work with or against the NHS. Video appointment app GP at Hand and its symptom checking tool, have struck deals with GP groups and say they could help improve waiting times issues but may create other headaches.

Having experience in this area could help him implement some of the NHS’s digital ambitions, though the morale-sapped staff and the unending winter crisis are much more enduring analogue problems.

Orthopaedic surgeons are also unlikely to welcome any uptick in parkour-related injuries if the Matt Hancock App catches on.

Personal life

Mr Hancock lives in Little Thurlow in his constituency, with his wife Martha, an osteopath, and their three children.

His website claims he is “the first MP in modern times” to win a horse race, riding at Newmarket in 2012. He is also an “avid” cricketer and claims to have played the most northerly game of cricket before succumbing to frostbite en route to the North Pole.

“He retains all his fingers,” his website boasts.

What it means for the NHS?

Tackling childhood obesity is one of the biggest crises facing the NHS and an active health secretary might hope to set a good example in this area.

Jeremy Hunt was dogged by his early career voting record and business ties to homeopathy. Osteopathy is another alternative therapy that raises eyebrows among evidence-minded health professionals.

Though the NHS does recommend it as a treatment option for lower back pain it is not routinely funded and evidence in other areas is limited.

As the NHS is in the middle of a drive to stamp out procedures where the evidence doesn’t stack up, Hancock-watchers will be keeping a close eye on his pronouncements in this area.

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