For a man aggressively pitching himself as the diplomatic and negotiating ace Brexit really needs, Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as health secretary is marred by some remarkably intemperate spats and dustups.
Take the time he used Donald Trump’s favourite tool of diplomacy – Twitter – to accuse the late Professor Stephen Hawking of spreading “pernicious falsehoods” and of failing to understand statistics. Yes, that is the Stephen Hawking, Britain’s pre-eminent scientist, the author of “A Brief History of Time” and a man globally regarded as a genius. Mr Hunt – a man with no scientific training whatsoever – had the gall to school the professor, insisting that when it came to understanding the “7-day-NHS”, Hunt’s own grasp of scientific evidence was superior.
The 7-day-NHS was, of course, Mr Hunt’s big idea during his time at Health. His all-singing, all-dancing, 7-day services – since discreetly dropped into hyperspace – were to be delivered without any extra staff or funds, but simply by bludgeoning junior doctors onto a punitive new contract. Like unicorns – and Brexit’s sunlit uplands – they existed as fantasy rhetoric alone.
Mr Hunt’s legendary negotiating skills during the junior doctor dispute include him literally hiding from us. He was once filmed by Sky News sprinting up a staircase to flee a junior doctor who called plaintively behind him, “Why won’t you sit down to talk to junior doctors – what if you’ve got this one wrong?” He refused to meet us even when we camped outside the Department of Health, sleeping on the pavement in a last-ditch protest to persuade him to choose talks, not strikes. Hardly the most auspicious track record for a fruitful renegotiation with the EU27.
Insight during, and after, the dispute was never Mr Hunt’s strong point. His campaign team are currently touting the imposition of his contract on junior doctors as evidence of the kind of steely virility that befits high office – as though driving 54,000 of the most obedient, people-pleasing, hard-working professionals into all-out strikes is something to be proud of. Meanwhile, NHS morale has never been lower. The scars from the dispute will take a generation to heal – and he wonders why the NHS is short of 40,000 nurses and 11,000 doctors.
Then again, Mr Hunt has always refused to face reality. In his time as health secretary, the self-proclaimed patient safety champion presided over a catastrophic slump in NHS performance that has caused untold misery for patients.
On his watch, the NHS waiting list for non-urgent surgery increased by 1.4 million. Worse, the number of patients waiting more than two weeks for urgent cancer treatment more than doubled – to 113,000 in 2017/18. During the same period, the number of patients waiting more than four hours in A&E tripled on Mr Hunt’s watch, rising from just under 60,000 to over 190,000 when he left Health in July last year.
It took a charity to spell out what Mr Hunt sought to spin away. In January 2017 – as hundreds of patients lay trapped on trolleys in hospital corridors, some of them even dying there – the head of the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, condemned conditions in NHS hospitals as a “humanitarian crisis”. True to form, instead of facing up to the media storm Adamson’s comments provoked, Mr Hunt went into hiding. As the NHS winter crisis raged on, he faced cross-party ire for his stony silence and refusal to speak to the press.
If you want a prime minister who pursues his pet vanity projects at all costs – even when they fly in the face of reality – then Jeremy Hunt is your man. Like an unfunded, unstaffed, 7-day-NHS, he collapses under scrutiny – indeed, he chooses to flee from it. But his track record is plain for all to see. An NHS on its knees, broken, flailing, and patients suffering in their thousands.
That’s quite some legacy from the longest serving health secretary in NHS history.
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