Andy Cowper on the health and social care secretary endorsing an individual player in the online GP consultations market on multiple occasions
One lesson that you learn when you write about the politics and management of the NHS for a living is that health secretaries, like books, should not ideally be judged by their cover. First impressions have limited diagnostic value.
(This can be slightly less true of a politician who has been forged in the tempering fire of shadowing the health portfolio. Opposition requires character and cleverness, if you are to avoid being doomed to the quote in the penultimate paragraph of the national story. The notable feature of shadow health leads in recent times has tended to be their longevity, save for the delightful four-month interregnum of Corbynistissima ultra Diane Abbott as the shadow health secretary of people’s hearts.)
Somebody has advised or briefed Mr Hancock moderately well: he does at least consistently talk about important issues, such as the bullying culture. This has been found to be alive and well in Sir Ron Kerr’s thorough review.
The problem that has emerged with Mr Hancock is not what he says: it is what he does. He has now chosen to endorse an individual player in the online GP consultations market on multiple occasions.
The importance of being earnest
Mr Hancock has an earnest and energetic demeanour (which if you like that sort of personal style, is very much the sort of personal style you will like).
For a minister to endorse a specific commercial player in a competitive market once might be considered a misfortune. For that minister to endorse a specific commercial player in a competitive market repeatedly looks like carelessness.
Firstly, Mr Hancock puffed the virtues of this private company in a national newspaper interview. Mr Hancock called the private company’s product “revolutionary - it works brilliantly for so many patients and goes with the grain of how people access modern services. I want to see (it) … available to all, not based on their postcode”.
As endorsements of a private company in a competitive market go, Mr Hancock’s is unambiguous.
PR is not your job, secretary of state
There is just one small problem: unambiguous endorsements of private companies in a competitive market are not in the job description for a secretary of state for health.
Next, he gave a speech at this private company’s headquarters, in front of its branding (to which the private company tried to ban HSJ reporters from access).
HSJ ran a clearly-argued editorial on this at that time.
Most recently, he was interviewed for a paid-for-by-this-private-company advertorial in Restoration-faced former chancellor George Osborne’s Evening Standard. In which he again endorsed the same private company’s product.
This was just embarrassing. So much so that when it blew up on Twitter, the private company’s prominent logo and branding were removed and altered to a “don’t read this bit, eh?” disclaimer line at the end of the piece. In which we are expected to believe that this was editorially independent work.
Ahem. The piece blithely ignores genuine concerns about the transfer of ownership of DeepMind UK patients data by “don’t be evil!” Google.
The piece’s “the future is digital” schtick is world-class speciousness.
And running the Department of Health But Social Care’s quote “the funding concerns surrounding the app and others like it will be discussed at the annual GP contract negotiations, but could not comment further” without any analysis or context is the opposite of journalism.
This isn’t journalism: it’s PR. The warm words of airy wannabe-reassurance about patient data rights and security are not really equal to reasonable scepticism based on past performance.
The real problem
Mr Hancock’s real problem is that his unambiguous endorsement of one specific private business in a competitive market does not seem to fit well with the Ministerial Code Of Conduct. As I pointed out.
The Code rules that ministers should not “normally accept invitations to act as patrons of, or otherwise offer support to, pressure groups, or organisations dependent in whole or in part on government funding”.
Mr Hancock has attempted a comical reverse-ferret, telling an HSJ roundtable that his endorsement of this private company helped their competitors.
Yes, really. He actually said that out loud, in the real world.
He quoted a competitor of this private company as thanking him for boosting demand, but apparently didn’t name that competitor.
Which is quite strange.
“I have helped competitors in the market in which I have repeatedly endorsed only one firm” is probably not going to cut the mustard as a defence. Mr Hancock has been repeatedly endorsing one private business in a competitive market. It is not clear to me that such behaviour is compatible with the ministerial code. And I cannot think of a comparable example of endorsement from any other minister.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the opposition is raising this behaviour with the prime minister.
Mrs Theresa May is a woman who has other woes, particularly the bonfire of the sanities that is Brexit. However, she might feel like looking vaguely decisive and in control, just for a change, and choose to act on this issue. Mr Hancock’s unwisdom presents a clear and present opportunity for the prime minister to do just that.