The welfare and support of staff is the “number one priority” for the NHS, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt said today, hinting he could lobby for an end to pay restraint.
Speaking at the NHS Confederation conference in Liverpool, Mr Hunt committed the government to “concrete actions” to improve conditions for NHS staff.
He said the issue of pay restraint was a matter for the chancellor Philip Hammond, but he was planning to meet with the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing and pledged to “relay those discussions to the chancellor before he makes his decision”.
Mr Hunt said NHS staff “have never worked harder; they have never had to deal with so much pressure on the frontline.
“The support and welfare of our staff must remain our number one priority in the years ahead. They are the people without whom we can do nothing. The evidence is clear that motivated staff give better care and we know we rely on a huge amount of goodwill.
“This is not about platitudes. This is about taking concrete actions to make sure we do support them and that they feel that support.”
He said a key area where progress was needed was on securing a deal with the EU on the status of EU nationals working in the NHS.
“We need them, we want them to say, they are part of our NHS family. It is an early priority for this government to secure rights which we would like be broadly the same as the rights they have now. That is absolutely top of our list as the Brexit negotiations start,” he said.
He emphasised work on staff retention, which had fallen, and “searching questions” needed to be asked about why that was. He said one key issue was responding to the demands of a modern workforce around flexible working.
Mental health support for NHS staff was also key. Mr Hunt said: “About 40 per cent of sick days in the NHS are for mental health or musculoskeletal reasons. That needs a lot of focus.”
Mr Hunt said the NHS needed to be “creative about dealing with workforce shortages and gaps”, saying there were things trusts can do and things the government can do. These include creating flexible career paths into nursing and other roles, such as the nurse apprenticeship scheme starting in September.
The speech was Mr Hunt’s first since being reappointed. He said: “I said when I was appointed to this job in 2012 that it was the biggest privilege of my life to be responsible for the NHS and since then three times I have asked to stay in the job and what started as a privilege has become a passion.
“A lot of things have changed in health policy in the last four or five years but the one thing that hasn’t change, as far as I am concerned, is my simple, abiding desire that everything we do in the NHS is about making us the safest, highest quality healthcare system in the world.”
Mr Hunt warned the result of the general election had changed the “legislative landscape” in terms of plans in the Conservative manifesto to introduce legislation to underpin changes to the NHS structure following the Five Year Forward View and sustainability and transformation plans.
He said: “Legislation of this nature is only going to be passed if there is a consensus across all parties that it is necessary. I don’t think that is in anyway impossible…
“It is not something we will do while the Brexit negotiations are carrying on but post-Brexit we will have a better understanding of the legislation STPs will need.”