With the NHS in the midst of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ according to the Red Cross, No 10 appeared to try to pass some of the blame onto NHS chief Simon Stevens this morning, with reports that Theresa May’s senior aides think he is ‘insufficiently enthusiastic and responsive’ when it comes to reducing spending.
So, it was bad-timing — or perhaps a case of Downing Street wanting to strike the first blow — that Stevens was hauled before the Public Accounts Committee this afternoon to discuss the problems facing the NHS. Setting the tone for a feisty testimony, Stevens began by contradicting the Prime Minister’s claim that the NHS was given more funding than he requested for its five-year plan. He said that it was ‘stretching it to say the NHS has got more than it asked for’:
‘Like probably every part of the public service we got less than we asked for in that process. So I think it would be stretching it to say the NHS has got more than it asked for. There are clearly very substantial pressures, and I don’t think it helps anybody to try and pretend that there aren’t.’
Stevens, too, appeared to disagree with the government regarding the depth of the problems facing the health service. When Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, said that the UK’s total health spending is around the average for the OECD, Stevens chipped in that if funding was compared to countries such as Germany then UK spending is 30pc less — even presenting a prop in the form of a Daily Mail cutting to back-up his claim. Later — in what appeared to be a thinly-veiled dig at Downing Street — he said that he was ‘enthusiastically’ campaigning against the government’s social care cuts.
Although today’s session is just one in a series of NHS-related headaches for Downing Street, it is striking that Stevens so openly contradicted both May and the Department of Health permanent secretary. While May may be able to brush off Jeremy Corbyn’s criticisms at PMQs without breaking a sweat, she will have greater difficulty explaining away complaints that come from the man at the helm of the NHS.
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