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Decaffeinated Coffey needs more ambition

How will the new Health Secretary confront the NHS's very immediate problems?

Last week’s Conservative Party conference was a stinging rejoinder to anyone who has accused the annual get-together of the UK’s most successful political project of being too cosy, too stage-managed. Struggling with plummeting poll ratings, and a more concerning collapse of market confidence, the new Prime Minister executed a couple of economic u-turns; briefing wars broke out between old colleagues and the new Home Secretary talked warmly of her ‘dream’ of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda while miming a jumbo jet taking off.

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But there was one small oasis of calm within the conference: the Health Secretary’s speech. Therese Coffey told delegates her part ‘will always be on your side, when you need care the most’, words so reassuring that several attendees were shown peacefully dozing through the speech.

Whether this was down to her Jackanory tones, or her policies we can only guess. Ms Coffey’s current big idea is that all patients can get an appointment with their GP within two weeks. This doesn’t sound like an ambitious pledge, but it’s not even a pledge, it’s ‘setting an expectation’.

If you read Our Plan for Patients, Ms Coffey’s first policy paper, the headline proposal for achieving this is getting 31,000 extra phone lines into surgeries: great news for anyone who hates on-hold Muzak, but not really a substitute for the 6,000-20,000 (depending who you talk to) GPs the health service needs right now.

While some Tories may have grateful for her bland milky offering this week, the Government needs to wake up to the very real staffing crisis in the NHS. And for that... they’ll need some stronger Coffey.