Chambertin, Riesling, Muscadet et al – Andy Cowper puts NHS leaders through a wine test

“Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy.” ― Alexander Fleming

“Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” ― Louis Pasteur

Parliament is out on recess and the weather is consistently appalling: it must be August. This is traditionally a month where the child rearing community are legally obliged to take their holidays.

In the carnival spirit of gaiety for which Cowper’s Cut is universally known, this is written while anticipating that just conceivably, HSJ readers on their holidays may permit themselves the occasional refreshing drink as they sit back over dinner and survey a landscape of five year forward hallucinations, STPs (sell the premises) and the hilarious prospect of an autumn of party conferences all equally desperate to say nothing at all about the NHS.

Accordingly, this week we address the tricky question of matching drinks with system leaders.

This is not by way of debating how much you would require before willingly entering into a conversation with any of these fine women but of course, mainly men. Perish the thought! (But it’s probably a Nebuchadnezzar)

Nor it is to address the vexed question of matching with white: NHS system leaders are white by default.

The right match

No, the question here is about what the right wine match (or perhaps metaphor) is for the system leaders.

Inevitably, we start with the Sun King of Skipton House himself, NHS Commissioning Board boss Simon Stevens. What is the perfect drink for Le Roi Soleil? This has to be classy, costly and coruscatingly rare.

Mr Hunt remains less than popular with a mass audience. Is he the Riesling of health policy, or the sherry? Probably riesling, because of its potential to be low strength, but very long lived

We don’t have to look far for the match: in the words of a subsequent French absolute commander of the state Napoleon Bonaparte, “nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin”. Simon Stevens is the Chambertin of system leaders: he is the wine produced in Bert’s field.

It’s a clear challenge not to pick something clichéd for NHS Improvement head honcho for now Jim Mackey. We need something blunt, but tempered with reality and versatile (ie able to make U turns). A cru Beaujolais, maybe? Morgon or Moulin A Vent – both grown on granite soil, and the longest lived of such wines.

As for the secretary of state for health emeritus Jeremy Hunt, well, blimey. What can we say?

Well, we can say that Mr Hunt means well, and has made the best of what little room he’s been left by dear old Lord Lansley’s 2012 reforms and by the Sun King’s absolute political monarchy over the NHS. Mr Hunt has carved himself out a niche bully pulpit on behalf of patient safety and of the NHS as a learning organisation, both of which are very good things to support.

So Mr Hunt wants right the things: he’s about half of a very good secretary of state for health – but it doesn’t quite come off. This is partly because things such as his infamous Monday morning phone calls create cognitive dissonance with his stated goals. Patient safety and having adequate workforce are two sides of the same coin, as Mr Hunt recently implicitly noted writing for HSJ.

Mr Hunt remains less than popular with a mass audience. Is he the Riesling of health policy, or the sherry? Probably riesling, because of its potential to be low strength, but very long lived.

As for Mr Hunt’s effervescent opponent for Labour Jonathan Ashworth, he is harder to categorise – not least because he has spoken movingly of his challenges as the child of a father with severe alcoholism, and supports charities which help children in that hugely tough situation.

Mr Ashworth strikes me as being an Angostura and tonic: an excellent, refreshingly astringent and complex creation, which is hard to categorise easily or lazily.

Who else do we have? Ian Dodge is the orange wine of health policy – highly natural, and funky and interesting – if not everyone’s cup of tea. Care Quality Commission’s David Behan is making good efforts despite an unpromising pre-arrival reputation for the brand. He’s proven durable, and definitely useful. The Muscadet of health policy?

This column was developed on Twitter, and I leave the last suggestion from a consultant surgeon interlocutor open as to who is the Beaujolais Nouveau of health policy. BN is lightweight, bubblegum flavoured and its success far more concerned with concerted PR than real substance. Whom in the world of health policy does that bring irresistibly to mind, I idly wonder?