10 Jul 2018

With the NHS funding settlement secure, this was perhaps a natural moment for Jeremy Hunt to leave Richmond House. His successor joins at a critical time with NHS England working up a new ten year plan for the service that will be launched in the autumn. In appointing Matt Hancock, the PM has opted for an experienced and effective Minister that could be a safe pair of hands in one of the most challenging Departments in Government. Hancock will take stock from his two most recent predecessors. One imposed a radical set of changes on the NHS and was sacked after two years. The other positioned himself as the champion of patient safety and of the NHS, and after seven years was promoted to one of the great offices of state. Matt Hancock will want to create his own path.

Much has been said about Hancock’s interest and passion for digital. His previous Ministerial experience has given him a taste for the power of technology and data to transform public services. He previously worked with Jeremy Hunt in getting more digital solutions into the NHS and looks set to continue the journey. He would be on familiar ground as the champion of digital, data and AI to improve patient care and deliver efficiencies. Of course, many a Health Minister has supported greater use of technology in the NHS. Getting the NHS to fully embrace the potential of technology will require new thinking and determination from the new Health Secretary.

As well as being a fan of all things digital, Hancock has also been an active exponent of healthy living. He’s been an advocate for sport and prevention; not only does he play for the Lords & Commons Cricket team, he was also the first MP in modern times to win a horse race. Those with long memories might recall Andrew Lansley’s preference to make the Department of Health the Department of Public Health as part of his reforms. With many of the executive responsibilities for the NHS now held by NHS England, public health might be an area where the new Secretary of State can take an active role.

While Hancock may well want to steer clear on the finer details of system reform and accountable care, he will still want to ensure that the Government’s priorities are front and centre of the new ten year plan

On reaching his new office Hancock will be eager to learn where all the money his predecessor secured will be going. Much will depend on what sort of partnership he can form with Simon Stevens and whether he will be satisfied just to be a sounding board for NHS England’s plan. Jeremy Hunt was able to form an effective double act with Stevens and in many ways this was essential for the NHS reform agenda to take shape. Today’s NHS lives and works against the grain of the Health and Social Care Act. Without an updated rule book to reflect the emphasis on collaboration and NHS England’s defacto leadership, the system could quickly breakdown if it was not for the trust and understanding between the Secretary of State and the Chief Executive of NHS England. While Hancock may well want to steer clear on the finer details of system reform and accountable care, he will still want to ensure that the Government’s priorities are front and centre of the new ten year plan. He will certainly find common interest in digital and data in the current leadership of NHS England, but could encounter resistance if he demands better patient waiting times.

The change of the guard at Richmond House might also see some initiatives quietly deprioritised. Given the limited progress to date, the Green Paper on social care might be postponed again. Integration of health and care might also not stay as a top priority for the Department. More positively, Hancock is likely to be supportive of industry. Across his Ministerial roles he has worked with industry and would be starting from the perspective of backing the UK’s healthcare industries to create growth and jobs.

Having a new Secretary of State after six years might also lead to some internal rethinking about what the right role of the Department of Health is. Changes to NHS England and NHS Improvement to create a single structure national leadership might also be accelerated as Hancock gets to grip with the multiple arms-length bodies that he is responsible for but in many ways detached from. As he takes on the biggest Department in Whitehall and the most high-profile public service, Hancock will find that getting on with his job will largely depend on working in partnership with others.

For more information please contact Thomas Cawston, Head of Health Policy at tcawston@hanovercomms.com