• Matt Hancock says targets should be “clinically appropriate” and geared to improving outcomes
  • He awaits advice on targets from NHS England and the prime minister instigated a review
  • Wants a more “positive” approach to the workforce, which he says will help safety

Health secretary Matt Hancock has told HSJ that flagship waiting time targets should be made more “clinically appropriate”.

Answering questions following his first speech in the post, Mr Hancock also sought to make a clear break with the style of his predecessor Jeremy Hunt, saying his approach to patient safety was to be “positive” and ensure the workforce was “firing on all cylinders”. This appeared to be a reference to Mr Hunt’s unpopularity with staff.

He also declined to say clearly that the NHS should be expected to meet the core targets.

The prime minister said last month there would be a review of waiting time targets when she announced a five-year funding deal for the NHS.

Mr Hancock, who spoke at West Suffolk Foundation Trust today, said he had discussed it with NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens, and that work was ongoing.

The NHS has failed to meet the four-hour emergency department and 18 week referral to treatment targets for several years, while the planned care waiting list has been growing and is currently around 4 million people.

Asked by HSJ if he would commit to the NHS meeting key targets in A&E, planned care and cancer, Mr Hancock said: “My goal is to improve outcomes for patients. There is a very important role for targets in delivering and also measuring so that we can hold people to account for delivery.

“The NHS has asked about whether we can ensure those targets are more clinically appropriate and they want to give me that advice. I have spoken to Simon Stevens about that and I look forward to him coming forward with a view.”

He added: “Clearly those targets are the government targets but I am also aware that from a clinical perspective we have got to make sure the targets we set are the very best for improving outcomes for patient care because that’s what our remit is.”

Asked by HSJ whether the NHS should expect him to be less less challenging to it than Jeremy Hunt, and about efforts to improve safety culture, Mr Hancock replied: “We will only get better outcomes and better patient safety when you have a workforce that feels valued and is firing on all cylinders.”

Pressed further he said: “Patient safety is very important to me. The point I was trying to make in the speech was that one of the preconditions of the best outcomes for patients and the best safety for patients is to have a working culture that is positive and collaborative and trusting and respectful.

“I prefer to put my challenge in that positive frame.”