On Tuesday, junior doctors committed a record breaking act of industrial action by abandoning their posts (including in emergency care) in order to protest the controversial new contracts that are being imposed on them by the Department for Health. This action is completely unprecedented in the history of the NHS. Before the current wave of strikes, the last time junior doctors took industrial action was in 1970. To completely desert has never happened before.
Despite offers from the BMA (British Medical Association) to resume negotiations, and a last-minute plan devised by Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs to “pilot” the new changes in certain areas, Jeremy Hunt rejected this as Labour “opportunism” (again quoting the discredited “weekend effect” in his rebuttal) and remains on a collision course with the BMA, a course in which he is apparently supported by the Prime Minister.
But why is Hunt being so combative? Over 125,000 appointments and treatments have been cancelled, and A+Es are expected to be on their knees struggling to cope with the aftermath. The strike also had the support of the public - if anything, the already lukewarm backing arrayed towards the government seems to be sagging as Hunt pursues his destructive agenda. Celebrities have come out strongly in support of the strikers, with emotional scenes tugging at the heartstrings of the British populace and driving them behind the doctors.
This is far from the first screw-up in Jeremy Hunt’s political career. His time as a Cabinet Minister is peppered with at best questionable and at worst incompetent actions.
Barely four months into the life of the coalition government, Hunt (then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) was accused of attempting to undermine the political independence of the civil service by offering a fixed-term contract to Naomi Gummer, his former parliamentary assistant. Before that, he was found in breach of the rules regarding MPs’ expenses for allowing the taxpayer to subsidise his constituency agent’s living costs and claiming for the wrong set of expenses on his main residence.
In June 2010, he made controversial claims that football hooliganism was responsible for the tragedy at Hillsborough, in which 96 football fans were crushed to death due to a lack of police control and gross lapses in safety precautions. He later apologised.
Perhaps Hunt’s biggest blunder up until his handling of the Junior doctors strike was the management of the 2012 Olympics. When contractors G4S could not provide enough security staff for the games, the government was forced to deploy soldiers to plug the gaps in protection.
Although the Olympics were a success, the major lapse in management, plus the shambles of the Olympic Legacy, meant that Hunt was transferred in the cabinet reshuffle of 2012 to the Department of Health. There his imbecility continued unabated. Immediately upon the announcement of his transfer, the deputy chairman of the BMA, Dr Kailash Chand, said "…disaster in the NHS carries on. I fear a more toxic right winger to follow the privatisation agenda." Hunt is also thought to have been involved in a book which called for the NHS to be broken up. For a senior member of a party claiming not to want to cut the NHS, this is hardly helpful.
In June 2013, Hunt drew up plans to charge foreign nationals for use of the NHS, claiming that it cost the British taxpayer £200 million. Official estimates placed the cost at £33 million however, with all but £12 million recovered, meaning that the cost of the crackdown would likely exceed the revenue reclaimed. In 2014, he claimed that the NHS could not afford to increase non-medical staff’s pay. Less than a year later, he was presented with damning information showing a 6% pay rise for hospital chiefs worth £35 million. Hunt promised an investigation.
And Hunt again drew condemnation from medical professionals when it was reported in January he had suggested that parents should go online to look at photos of rashes if worried that a child may have meningitis. Meningitis Now called the decision “potentially fatal”.
Hunt’s management of this latest scandal shows that he knows his political vulnerability. He is making a stand on junior doctors - it is his Alamo. If he cannot bring the doctors into line and keep the support of the public, he will end his career in disgrace. He has already stated that he believes that being Health Secretary is likely to be his last major post in politics. He wants to be seen as being successful in this dispute, and to end the twilight of his career on a high. It is therefore somewhat mystifying that he has chosen to try and break one of the most respected legions of workers with the imposition of a new contract rather than continue to negotiate.
Hunt’s bull-headed approach is only souring public perception of his government department. And while David Cameron is known for his relaxed approach at handling errant ministers, he will not tolerate such discord indefinitely. If Hunt doesn’t want to go down in history as a divisive figure hated by both the medical profession and the public, then a rethink is needed on Junior Doctors’ Contracts. And soon.