The new health ministers are facing high expectations that they will be able to win the hearts and minds of patients and staff.

The appointments include former union general secretary Alan Johnson as secretary of state, and high-profile surgeon Professor Sir Ara Darzi and former nurse Ann Keen in supporting roles.

Together they are expected to 'pour oil on troubled water', one commentator said.

Boosting public confidence in the NHS will be a major priority for prime minister Gordon Brown, who will have to call a general election some time in the next two years.

Ipsos MORI public affairs managing director Ben Page told HSJ the new team could help bridge the 'bizarre' gap between patients' positive experiences of the NHS and negative perceptions of the service among the general public.

Improving staff morale would be crucial to this, he said, as public perception was being tainted by employees 'going round saying [the NHS is] rubbish'.

Mr Johnson will be 'more acceptable' to staff than Patricia Hewitt, whom many regarded as a 'harridan', he said.

Mr Johnson's union background has also been widely interpreted as the means to offer an olive branch to bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing, where relationships with government have been frosty in the past.

King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson said Mr Johnson's appointment was an attempt to 'pour oil on troubled water and calm the debate'.

'The first thing he is going to have to do is talk to the clinicians, so we welcome the appointment of a nurse and a doctor as a sign he is keen to reach out to the professions,' he said.

Voice for staff

Sir Ara promised to be an advocate for all NHS staff. 'I will be. taking their experiences and. knowledge with me and will be their advocate at the heart of government,' he pledged.

Jon Restell, chief executive of Managers in Partnership, a division of Unison, said: 'Darzi is the right kind of person, along with Alan Johnson, for winning over the best he can, some of the sceptics.'

The only question was whether Sir Ara would continue to be seen as independent of government, he added.

British Medical Association central consultants and specialists committee chair Dr Jonathan Fielden said Sir Ara had been 'fundamentally involved in many aspects of government policy'.

It remained to be seen whether his appointment to the health team would affect how he would now interact with the profession, he added.

Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health chair Sharon Grant said: 'It is always helpful when people have experience at a grassroots level and can see things from the public's point of view.'

This gave her 'some optimism' that reforms to change patient forums to local involvement networks would be looked at again.

What is on Mr Johnson's to-do list?

  • Re-engaging clinicians in reform, including incentives for. practice-based commissioning
  • Addressing tensions over pay, including strike threats
  • Ensuring a successful recruitment process for junior doctors
  • Boosting patients' perceptions of the service
  • Implementing Gordon Brown's pledge to improve out-of-hours access to GPs
  • Making sure all acute trusts reach. foundation status. by 2008
  • Reducing hospital-acquired infections, including MRSA and Clostridium difficile
  • Tackling health inequalities


Cabinet reshuffle: new faces at the Department of Health

Alan Johnson

The new health secretary was. formerly education secretary. He is. the MP for Kingston upon Hull West.and Hessle.

Dawn Primarolo

The newly appointed minister of state, MP for Bristol South, has also served as shadow health minister, financial secretary and paymaster general.

Ben Bradshaw

Formerly a journalist, the new minister of state was elected MP for Exeter in 1997 and has been a minister for local environment, marine and animal welfare.

Ann Keen

An MP for Brentford and Isleworth since 1997, the new under-secretary of state has worked as a tutor nurse and. district nurse.

Ara Darzi

Professor Sir Ara Darzi, appointed under-secretary of state, is chair of surgery at Imperial College London and a surgery adviser to the DoH.

Ivan Lewis

The only health minister to retain his post in the reshuffle, Mr Lewis has been an MP for Bury South since 1997, before which he worked in the voluntary sector.