As Alastair McLellan, the editor of the Health Service Journal, noted in his column last week, it was not that long ago that the likes of the Health Secretary could look forward to a relatively peaceful August. How things have changed.
If the headlines, and indeed the actions of Jeremy Hunt and others, in the last few days are anything to go by, we can expect the remainder of the year to be a busy if not turbulent one with the potential to cause more than a few uncomfortably moments at NHS England and Richmond House. Just this week a study in the British Medical Journal’s BMJ Quality and Safety report has warned that the NHS remains at risk of a Mid-Staffordshire-like scandal. The Daily Mail has found that only five consultants cover A&E services overnight across the whole of England. And perhaps most troublingly for Jeremy Hunt, new figures have shown this week that the NHS suffered its worst summer in terms of hospital waiting times for a decade – an ominous sign given the inevitable demand services will face in the winter, which experts have already claimed the NHS will be hard-pressed to withstand.
For his part, Mr Hunt has been proactive. The Government has already committed to spending £500 million on A&E services, but as the NHS has proved many times before, throwing money at the problem is a little like trying to stop the leak in a dam with a sticking plaster. Instead, based on his article in the Daily Telegraph today, Mr Hunt is attempting to tackle the problem from a different angle – namely trying to prevent patients, particularly the elderly, ending up in hospital in the first place.
The rationale is sound and Mr Hunt is backed up by a considerable volume of evidence suggesting both that a great many patients could be better treated at home or in their local communities rather than in hospital, and that unnecessary use of hospital services is clogging up the likes of A&E units and putting considerable pressure on resources. But Mr Hunt’s goal is certainly not an easy one: he will face significant opposition if he attempts to change GPs’ contracts to achieve his vision, but will also have to correct public perception about where they should be going if in need of care.
What these headlines, and the actions of Mr Hunt, show is that there is unlikely to be any let-up from the forensic examination of the quality of NHS care that was so evident before the summer. Mr Hunt appears to have set himself and the health service a very ambitious goal, but if it is realised he will go a long way to establishing his legacy as a Health Secretary and underlining his Party’s credentials on what will be a crucial issue come the General Election.