New health minister Daniel Poulter has insisted politicians are becoming more far-sighted in their approach to debates about service reconfiguration.
The Conservative minister was asked by HSJ how he would respond to MPs from his own party who campaigned against reconfigurations that would improve the quality of patient care.
“What we’ve seen increasingly… is that MPs are being more responsible in how they approach service reconfiguration,” Dr Poulter said.
“I think it’s unlikely that an MP would, on their own back, pick a fight with local clinicians who are giving them the opposite message.
“It’s up to MPs of all parties to show responsibility.”
However, NHS Confederation chief executive Mike Farrar said that while MPs were “shifting a bit”, they “were not all the way there” in terms of not making political capital from service reorganisation proposals.
He urged NHS leaders to build an evidence base for the benefits of reconfiguration. He thought it likely reconfiguration “would feature quite strongly” as an issue in local parliamentary candidates’ campaigns in the run-up to the next election.
“What really annoys me is when we have fictitious stories [from politicians about reconfiguration] – a rumour started in order to create a local issue,” he added. “That’s irresponsible.”
During a debate organised by think tank 2020health Mr Farrar said there had been a long-held view among sitting MPs that they would be “Kidderminstered” unless they fought to keep local services open. He was referring to the victory of Richard Taylor, a campaigner against the downgrading of Kidderminster’s hospital, as an independent candidate in the 2001 general election.
Mr Farrar suggested this view could be outdated because “a doctor could stand against them saying ‘this service is not as safe as it could be’”, and win because they favoured a popular service reconfiguration.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt yesterday outlined his priorities for the health service, in his first public address since becoming health secretary.
Mr Hunt told a reception at the Conservative party conference that he had identified four priorities for “the next couple of years”.
“It’s time to move the debate on to talk about outcomes,” he said. “After taking a lot of soundings I’ve decided to focus on four areas.
“The first is quality of care. Good quality care is as important as good quality treatment. We don’t always have great care quality.”
The second was the “challenge of caring for people with dementia”, the third was long-term conditions, and the fourth was mortality rates for major diseases.
He also called for “much greater integration and working between sectors” in health and social care, and said integration was “going to be as important as competition”.