It's not just Jeremy Hunt who should resign over the junior doctors' strike – Simon Stevens should go too

The chief executive of NHS England had a front row seat during the imposition of PFI on the NHS, yet his five-year plan for the health service contains no reference to the burdens it left behind

Joel Benjamin
Tuesday 26 April 2016 12:09
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens visits Consett Medical Centre in County Durham
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens visits Consett Medical Centre in County Durham

Called out for his misuse and abuse of NHS statistics, the utterly discredited Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has misled the public and lost the trust of the medical profession. As junior doctors walk out on emergency and maternity care for the first time in the history of the NHS, he should resign. But, in creating a crisis in the NHS, he is certainly not alone – and he’s not the only one who should go.

Following the dispute over the contract has been, at times, confusing. On one hand, the Government talks of the need to make “savings” for the NHS to be “financially sustainable”; on the other, we have a Health Secretary desperate to impose upon staff a costly “7-day NHS” and a rewired junior doctors contract governing weekend pay that even Hunt concedes “will not save the Government a penny”.

Junior doctors and the BMA argue the new contract is unworkable, sees staff covering extended shifts, which puts patients at risk, and discriminates against single female doctors – single mothers in particular, whose pay is slashed by a Government which nevertheless pays lip service to gender equality.

Pressure on the Health Secretary intensified a week ago as a judicial review of the junior contract imposition, forced by five junior doctors, pushed Hunt into a U-turn. The Government was forced to retreat slightly from its threats to “impose” the junior contract, with lawyers confirming the Government may lack the legal authority to do so.

Cameron and Osborne – wounded by a disastrous budget, bitter infighting within the Tory party over the upcoming Brexit vote – look increasingly in need of a scapegoat, and Jeremy Hunt has stepped forward for the job.

Hunt was appointed Health Secretary in September 2012 to replace the deeply unpopular Andrew Lansley, who was himself removed following public outrage at the 2012 Health and Social Care Act – a piece of legislation which removed the NHS “duty of care” to patients, marking the potential end of the NHS as a universal, free at the point of use, healthcare service.

Hunt, the co-author of a 2005 Conservative Party pamphlet on “de-nationalising the NHS”, recommending replacing it with a US style “universal insurance” model, was a natural choice for a government intent on privatising the NHS by stealth. But he didn’t do this alone – and nor should he be the only one feeling the heat now.

Hunt appointed Simon Stevens as chief executive of NHS England in September 2013. The move signalled a clear intent to push on with the marketisation of the NHS, a process of dismantling the NHS which began under Labour and Tony Blair.

Stevens was previously a Labour Party councillor in Lambeth, rising to become advisor to Alan Milburn as Secretary of State for Health, and health policy advisor to Blair. From 2004 to 2006, Stevens was the chief executive of the private healthcare company United Health, while serving on the board of the Kings Fund think tank and advancing healthcare “reform” policy.

Stevens had a front row seat during New Labour’s reign, and is closely associated with the imposition of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) Hospitals on the NHS – many of which, like Lewisham (South London Trust) and Barts NHS Trusts, are buckling under the weight of £80bn contracts signed with private companies, largely during the New Labour years.

Despite his knowledge of PFI, Stevens’ five-year plan for NHS England, released in 2014 contained no references to the policy or its long term financial implications. And yet the NHS will pay out £2bn per year in PFI “unitary charges” for each year of his plan.

If, as Hunt would have us believe, Conservative reforms to the NHS are about a “financially viable” NHS, why do Hunt and Stevens both remain silent about the unaffordable PFI debts slowly crippling the NHS, sucking staff and resources away from frontline care?

Ultimately, the fight for the NHS is about integrity and public trust in the Health Secretary, and those appointed to run our health service in the public interest. We are witnessing the death throes of a morally bankrupt Minister who has lost the public’s trust and is intent upon privatising the NHS, no matter what the cost to the nation.

It’s time for Jeremy Hunt to go, and to take Simon Stevens with him.

Joel Benjamin is a researcher and campaigner for The People vs PFI

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