Steve Barclay claimed he wanted to “stimulate a conversation” about backroom staffing in the NHS as he set out its preparations for the winter.
In what could be his final speech as Health Secretary ahead of the new prime minister’s arrival, Mr Barclay described ambulance handover times as the “number one priority for the department and for NHS England” over the winter.
“You will have seen this is not just my number one priority but from the recent viral video with my heckler that this is also a wider priority as well,” he told a Policy Exchange event.
Mr Barclay was recently confronted by an angry member of the public during a visit to Moorfields Eye Hospital in central London, who highlighted how “people have died” while waiting for the emergency services.
The Health Secretary claimed that NHS data showed a “small number of trusts” accounted for “almost half of ambulance handover delays”.
He said a “new focus on operational performance underpinned by data” and “targeted work over the summer” was being used to deal with issues in these trusts.
A “lack of flow within our hospitals” was also highlighted as an area of concern, with Mr Barclay telling the audience: “We currently have over 12,000 beds occupied by patients who are medically fit to discharge.”
The Health Secretary also discussed longer-term priorities for the health service, claiming there were 53,000 staff in organisations across the NHS in England “where the majority are not providing direct patient care” on top of hospital and GP management.
He added: “My point is this is not just an issue of cost. It is also about effectiveness. Because too much management can be a distraction to the front line.
“Staff at the centre need to streamline the administrative burden of those on the front line and not risk adding to it.
“If we are to reprioritise back office costs to the front line, there needs to be more transparency.”
Mr Barclay added he would publish a “digital map” of NHS staffing, telling the event: “It will stimulate, I hope, a conversation within the NHS about how priorities and resourcing is best aligned.”
Ahead of making the speech, the Health Secretary had been expected to suggest the slimming down of NHS priorities to deal with a difficult winter.
But he later told the PA news agency that asking the NHS to focus on core priorities would not mean downgrading areas such as cancer, mental health and maternity services.
“It’s about focusing on the big priorities which are set out in the NHS standards – that includes cancer, mental health, core areas like that,” Mr Barclay said.
He pointed to digitisation as an area where scalable projects should be prioritised.
“We have 20 pages of priorities on digitisation. I think … it’s far more important that we’ve picked those things that have most impact, such as wifi in hospitals, or the electronic patient record, which are things that are scalable and have a very big impact in driving efficiency within the NHS.”
Asked what the trade-offs would be, he said “there’s lots and lots of smaller things that the NHS has said that it’s prioritising” and that it would be up to local leaders to decide the top areas of focus.