Matt Hancock has been ambitious for a big Cabinet job for a good while. He’s finally got it, and today the new Health Secretary had his first outing in the Commons with departmental questions. Every new Secretary of State wants to make their mark on the job, showing how they’re different to their predecessor, and setting out their priorities for the portfolio. Jeremy Hunt was particularly good at the latter, making patient safety his focus as Health Secretary. Hancock has clearly paid attention to how the longest-serving Health Secretary approached the job, and last week gave a speech setting out three priorities: workforce, technology and prevention.
His message was clear enough: he’s not the same as Jeremy Hunt, who spent a good portion of his time in the department engaged in a stand-off with doctors over their pay. Hancock again emphasised his commitment to those working in the health service today, telling the Chamber that ‘I value every single person who works in the NHS and in social care because everybody plays a part’. But in turning away from Hunt’s previous focus on safety, Hancock has opened up an easy attack line for the Opposition, which Labour today exploited.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth used his topical questions slot to complain about falling standards for patients and increased rationing of treatment. Interestingly, he also engaged with Hancock on one of his priority areas, which is technology. The Labour frontbencher raised concerns about the GP at Hand app, which Hancock uses personally, and asked ‘why is he dismissing these concerns about patient safety?’
Hancock’s response was to argue that ‘if we turn our backs on new tech, we are turning our backs on better care’. He wants to have an upbeat vision of the NHS as one that embraces the technological opportunities open to it in order to overcome some of the big challenges it faces. This is a matter on which Hancock is personally evangelical: indeed, it can be rather difficult to get him off the subject. It will be interesting to see whether, after a few months of engaging with the reality of the NHS and technology, he is still quite so optimistic.