With the annual tradition of the NHS winter crisis in full swing, few expected Jeremy Hunt to tweet this after the recent cabinet reshuffle: ‘Delighted to be appointed to the job I love for the fifth time’. If he remains in post, this summer will see him become the longest-serving Health Secretary, overtaking Norman Fowler who held the office for a little shy of six years during the 1980s.
Perhaps more significantly, next month will see him outlast the tenure of Aneurin Bevan, the legendary father of the NHS. We all know what his legacy is, but what will Mr Hunt have to show for his time in post? His alleged refusal to be moved into another job would indicate this. He believes he has unfinished business.
Perhaps the clue is in his new expanded brief: he is now Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Anyone who works in the NHS will be aware of the need for a new relationship with the latter sector. The NHS curse of ‘bedblocking’ is largely due to a lack of social care arrangements in place for patients who require looking after, but not acute medical treatment of hospital.
In a recent survey by the NHS Confederation, 92% of hospital chief executives said they were seeing more delayed discharges from hospital. Meanwhile, in a King’s Fund poll of funding directors, 63% said that the delays at their NHS trust have become worse over the past year. This costs the NHS sorely needed funds, which could be more productively diverted if social care needs were properly addressed.
The now Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be responsible for an upcoming green paper on the issue of social care, and its impact on the health service.
Some have dismissed the evolution of the Department of Health into the Department of Health and Social Care as semantics, pointing to the fact that Mr Hunt already had control over policy on social care, with little effect. Some estimates state that around £6bn have been slashed from the social care budgets by cash-strapped local authorities, while every day an aging population increases the need for funding.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP and former coalition health minister lent an authoritative voice to the scepticism the scepticism, tweeting: ‘So what does new title of Sec of State for Health and Social Care actually mean? I was Minister responsible for social care IN Health Department in 2015 so unless they are proposing change to funding of social care, this looks like window dressing.’
However it seems churlish to knock the government for taking a step which finally recognises that the division needs redressing. Will it be window-dressing, or fixing up the whole shop. The ball is in now in Mr Hunt’s court.