When Jeremy Hunt took up his post as health secretary after a cabinet reshuffle in 2012, little did we know that within a few years his belligerence would provoke the wrath of overworked junior doctors and underfunded nurses across the nation.
He seemed an odd choice for the position, and we soon heard his questionable views on some major healthcare issues. He voted to cut the legal time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 12; he had written about privatising the health service; and he had supported the use of homeopathy, an alternative medicine that has no evidence basis, which he suggested would be funded—before we mourn the death of the NHS, at least—at the public’s expense.
Homeopathy was first developed over 200 years ago, a time when you visited your barber for limb amputations as well as a haircut, and when conventional medical practices included unproven procedures like purging, blistering and blood-letting. The proposed principle assumes that disease is treated with the thing that caused the symptoms; for example, an insomniac could be given a remedy made with a small dose of coffee. A very small dose; the remedies are often as dilute as one molecule of the active ingredient in a universe filled entirely with water, meaning not one drop of the original substance is present in the end-product. ‘Water has memory’, say homeopaths, but how do you get a water molecule, or the sugar pill you’ve dried it onto, to remember the initial ingredient and forget all the other substances it has come into contact with? Homeopathy is bonkers.
These archaic remedies alone are harmless, but when quacks replace qualified health professionals as sources of medical advice—and when the remedies are used in place of vaccination or to treat fatal diseases like cancer or meningitis—they become dangerous.
The paucity of logic and the risk of harm have not bothered Prince Charles, who in his infamous ‘black spider memos’ lobbied MPs to publicly fund homeopathic medicine. But welcome figures published last month by the Health and Social Care Information Centre suggest his efforts have been unsuccessful.
The number of NHS prescriptions for homeopathy in England dropped by 18% in 2015 from the previous year, and is 95% down on its peak nearly 20 years ago. Homeopathic hospitals are closing; the UK Science and Technology Committee disapproves of the practice; and the Department of Health’s consultation on blacklisting homeopathy could soon ban CCGs from prescribing it.
That’s one less concern for patient safety, but homeopathy supporter Jeremy Hunt, who is pushing the NHS to breaking point, remains one of the biggest threats. It is customary to refer to cabinet ministers as 'Right Honourable’ in the House of Commons, but I’m sure that many NHS staff, and anyone who values the health service, have more choice words to describe him.
Over half a million people have signed petitions for a vote of no confidence in Hunt and it’s not hard to see why. Mr Hunt once tweeted identifiable patient information on a hospital visit, and in another social media blunder he passed comment on an NHS corporate manslaughter trial before it had reached its conclusion. He lacks common sense, let alone a basic understanding of healthcare. And time after time, he fails to understand the importance of evidence, whether manipulating weekend death statistics or supporting unfounded practices. The death knell will surely soon toll the end of his incumbency, and the quackery he has peddled.