This Week: Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda since 2001
Why he matters: Mr Bryant held ministerial or front bench shadow roles from 2008 to 2016. The biographer of Stafford Cripps and Glenda Jackson, he aspires to the Speakers’ chair.
On the day HSJ interviews Chris Bryant, his photograph appeared in the Daily Mirror.
It shows the back of his head, which is shaved and has a set of stitches in the shape of an inverted horseshoe showing clearly through the stubble.
Thanks to his barber spotting an odd lump, Mr Bryant is in recovery from a stage three melanoma.
The experience brought the long-standing Labour Party MP for Rhondda, who has campaigned on a range of health issues, up close to the reality of NHS in 2019.
“I went to see my GP on the 11th of January. I dropped into the clinic and they said, ‘we’ll see you at five’,” he remembers. “Six days later, I was seeing the dermatologist. Five days after that she was cutting it out. Eight days after that I had the results and she said [‘it’s cancerous’], Five days after that I saw the maxillofacial person. Then five days after that he was cutting it out again.”
As well as being impressed by the speed of service, he was pleasantly surprised by its flexibility.
In the days after his operation, Mr Bryant became concerned that his scar was not healing well. He consulted the surgeon, SNP MP and previous Bedpan interviewee Dr Philippa Whitford.
“She said, ‘I’d go back and see [your surgeon] tomorrow’. I said, ‘well I can’t just rock up’ and she replied ‘honestly, you can’.
“I got on the train [to Wales] first thing the next morning, and at eight o’clock I rang, spoke to the receptionist and she said, ‘oh, hang on, he’s just off to do his rounds now, let me just grab him and see whether he’s happy to see you at the end of the day’. And, of course, he was.”
Mr Bryant was less impressed by the state of the buildings where the treatment took place.
“They get so many people going through them that, that they just get battered very quickly.”
He also thinks the NHS needs to improve its communication with patients.
The people who were just as important to me as the doctors were the receptionists and the people who organised the next appointment. Because, particularly with cancer obviously, speed is of the essence at certain points’
For obvious reasons, Mr Bryant is away from home Monday to Thursday. He asked to be called, rather than being sent a letter, about any appointments. But it was only good fortune that he was home in Wales during the week and picked up a letter informing him he was scheduled for a CT scan he would have otherwise missed.
Mr Bryant says this helped him realise how vital staff in non-clinical roles were to good quality care.
“The people who were just as important to me as the doctors were the receptionists and the people who organised the next appointment. Because, particularly with cancer obviously, speed is of the essence at certain points.
“When the woman or man you ring up who is managing the diary for the consultant you’ve got to see is nice and understands that you’re a bit anxious, that is as valuable as anything else”.
‘I don’t think the Tories are vermin’
The Welsh MP also says how – when faced with a life-threatening illness – getting the best care trumped convenience.
Mr Bryant did not have to travel further than 20 miles for his treatment, but he admits he “would have gone anywhere to see the right person for the lump on the back of my head”.
His experience made him determined to “try to be courageous” when explaining the need for centralising clinical expertise – a challenging prospect in the Rhondda where “not very many people have cars.”
He acknowledges it is a “very difficult” debate to have with the public, but he “absolutely despises” politicians climbing aboard save our hospital “bandwagons”.
In fact, Mr Bryant is that rarest of things in our polarised world, a politician who is avowedly “not that tribal”.
“I don’t think the Tories hate the NHS, I don’t think they’re ‘vermin’. I hate all of that kind of stuff. I’ve got energy for things, but not for that… and I do hate it when people shroud wave as a form of political campaigning.”
While he is happy that Wales is not subject to the commissioner/provider split “malarkey”, he is relaxed about the involvement of the private sector in healthcare.
“I remember sitting next to somebody I respect on a Labour Party platform and he said, ‘I will never allow the private sector to have any role whatsoever in the NHS in Wales’. I said, ‘what about opticians?’ He said, ‘well, obviously opticians’. Then I said, ‘what about chemists?’ and so on.
Calling for the debate to be “a bit more rational”, he adds “I’m very conscious in my patch that opticians often spot diabetes before anybody else, including GPs.”
Mr Bryant aspires to follow John Bercow as Speaker. He has a nuanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of the British parliamentary system when it comes to healthcare.
“We can be as adamant as we want about something, [but] we might actually be wrong. Sometimes politicians are slightly prone to trying to find the evidence after they’ve already developed the policy”
He says Parliament’s “constituency basis” means that “MPs’ advice surgeries bring in conditions that most politicians in most other countries probably never come across unless it’s in their own family [or they have a clinical background]. When I talk to Spanish MPs, for example, they just don’t come across the conditions which walk in our front door every Friday.”
This gives individual MPs the ability to raise awareness of “medical issues that otherwise will never get any attention whatsoever.” However, the downside of this power, he suggests, is that British MPs may forget they are “generalists” in most subjects.
“We can be as adamant as we want about something, [but] we might actually be wrong. Sometimes politicians are slightly prone to trying to find the evidence after they’ve already developed the policy.”
’Every minister gets ministeritis’
Mr Bryant is probably best known to NHS watchers as the MP who successfully guided a private members bill through Parliament last year which provides greater legal protection for “emergency workers”, including NHS staff.
After coming top of the private members’ ballot, he chose six possible bills and asked his constituents which one he should champion.
At first, Mr Bryant faced opposition from then-home secretary Amber Rudd and other ministers, but Mr Bryant and colleagues “wore them down fairly quickly”.
After that, the process “ended up being a series of battles with government ministers in meeting after meeting about what counted as an emergency service”.
After achieving “a fairly generous understanding” of who counted as an emergency worker, it was onto the next hurdle of whether to include sexual assaults.
“I was fairly confident at every stage that ministers would always have to cave in. They were trying to be helpful, but every minister gets ministeritis, which is where the civil servants go ‘well, you see the problem with doing that minister is….’ Sometimes it’s just better not to be surrounded by civil servants. You just go, ‘no, no, I’m sorry, I’m doing this’.”
Mr Bryant knows “of itself, the act won’t transform the situation for people in the emergency services. I think the NHS needs to do his level best to make sure that its staff are safe in their working environment. That involves more than just a piece of legislation which sends people to prison if they’ve attacked an emergency worker.”
Next week: Trans child activist Susie Green
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