HSJ’s essential summary of the biggest NHS stories

Clarity amid the tumult

Delegates attending the NHS Confederation conference this week had every reason to expect they would be met by a new health secretary, that having been the pre-election gossip. The NHS had even gone so far as to find its own candidate, propelling the rumour mill that former Cabinet Office boy Ben Gummer would replace Jeremy Hunt. Not only did a major reshuffle not materialise in the context of the Tory non-majority, but Mr Gummer lost his seat altogether.

So the Department of Health’s own remarkable uptick in health secretary longevity and retention was centre stage at Confed 2017, as Mr Hunt appeared for his fifth conference in the post.

Unfortunately the same trend in workforce security is not the case for the NHS itself. And Mr Hunt could hardly help but identify staffing as the major focus for the NHS – including retention, which he said had fallen recently, posing “searching questions” about why that was.

Mr Hunt offered a glimmer of light on dropping pay restraint (amid the Tories’ soul searching on austerity); and both he and later on Simon Stevens pressed the message that we do need staff from overseas, as well as “homegrown”.

There were searching questions too at Confed about what the current government-in-limbo means for the health service.

Mr Hunt said health legislation was very unlikely in the short term but – in a show of optimism about his further job security – that there could be something “after Brexit” if cross-party support is agreed with Labour.

Simon Stevens – who normally delivers a masterclass of policy wizardry sprinkled with charts – this time sprinkled his speech with real human stories; and sought to offer clarity about what to focus on amid the tumult.

That means sticking to Next Steps for the forward view – dust it off and read it if you have not already, was the NHS England boss’ order – and NHS England announcing the first “accountable care systems”, seeking to give some welly to the integration and health system agenda.

Pats on the back were issued as it was confirmed the NHS had overall balanced its books in 2016-17 – a big improvement on last year but, as Jim Mackey said on Wednesday, unfortunately you’ve got to do it all again this year.