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Michael White: a quiet start

Two weeks into his new job and Jeremy Hunt has barely uttered a word in public that I have caught, even though the healthcare furniture is falling about all around him in the usual noisy way.

Shroud-waving royal colleges, irate patients groups, a Care Quality Commission chair who cuts her professional throat in public, it’s not been dull.

So well done, secretary of state. If your job is to get the NHS off page one, the absence of a desire to grab personal headlines is a good sign. Besides, you’ve had more than your share for 2012, haven’t you? Brief and bland remarks during a visit to St Thomas’s (it’s the nearest hospital to Westminster and Whitehall) about NHS heroes is as far as you’ve ventured into deep water. Good, it’s best to learn to swim first. As HSJ said last week, some scary decisions looming.

One health secretary I did hear speaking out was the last one. Andrew Lansley popped up in Cambridge at a YouGov conference on reputations in the internet age (they’re fragile) to chide the Lib Dems for being unreliable coalition partners. (“What about your lot, matey?” asked members of the audience.) He also explained that in coalitions politics and government sometimes diverge - as they did over the Health Bill. Those Lib Dems wanted it both ways!

The government’s ambitious long-term achievements may be more evident by polling day in 2015, Mr Lansley insisted - and in the NHS too. Without the injections of extra funding - anything up to 8 per cent a year - common in the Blair/Brown era, voters will notice that the system is coping, it is not crashing, he argued. The service is not being disrupted.

Well, it’s early days, so we’ll see. Nick Seddon of the Reform lobby got excited that reported patient safety incidents rose by 25 per cent last year. Scandalous? Or evidence that NHS culture is becoming more open and responsive? We’ll see about that too.

I had expected to read the official allocation of portfolios among Mr Hunt’s new ministerial team by now. From what I gather there’s no great roadblock, just tweaking round the edges. Nick Clegg’s sidekick, Norman Lamb, whose health career was derailed by the pre-election “death tax” row, has inherited mental health and social care from Paul Burstow. Lamb is a passionate advocate of integrating services and - unlike his new boss? - already knows and cares enough to risk making a speech to the King’s Fund on the topic.

With that great survivor, Simon “Smoker” Burns, taking his ashtray off to transport, Some of his portfolio has been apportioned to the unflappable Lord Howe - did I mention survivors, anyone? - who is minister for quality ( “the quality” is what Victorians called people like him). Some goes to new boy, Dr Dan Poulter, the Suffolk medic and tall rugby player (34). The energetic Dr Dan’s brief includes women and children’s health, veterans’ health - higher profile thanks to wounded war casualties and the paralympics? - the medical and allied trades including nursing (pay included), regulation and IT.

That sounds rather a lot to me, a bit of a poisoned pot of Paraquat for inexperienced shoulders, however broad and rugby-like. Obviously J Hunt will supervise it all, although someone did muse aloud in my hearing that George Osborne backed Hunt for health because it is a graveyard for Tories and the chancellor was taking care of a future rival. Too clever by half, I’d say.

Anna Soubry has got public health, including sexual health, usually a woman’s “caring” brief. For her unscripted defence of assisted dying she’s also been dubbed the “high-heeled, foul-mouthed minister for death” by the Mail’s Melanie Phillips. Could it be that Soubry is Mr Hunt’s handy, unofficial lightning rod, there to attract the attacks? Just a thought.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

Readers' comments (3)

  • Isn't he on holiday?

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  • If I had just been appointed Secretary of State for Health I think I would have forgone my holiday and got stuck into my daunting brief - wouldn't you?

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  • Clive Peedell

    Michael,
    We no longer have a Secretary of State for Health, because the Health and Social Care Act has denationalised the NHS. The duties and powers of the "SoS" were removed by changes to clause 1 and related clauses.
    He's quiet because it's all down to the NHSCB and CCGs now. He has little legal responsibility. That's why removal men have taken most of DH up North, away from London

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