by GK Strategy 23rd July, 2015

Jeremy Hunt vs. the British Medical Association

One of the major announcements last week was the Government’s ‘25 year vision’ for the NHS which included plans previously set out by the Prime Minister to move the health service to seven days working. Debate around the NHS was intentionally kept to a minimum by the Conservatives pre-election, until a last-minute curveball to commit the £8bn per year by 2020 called for by NHS England CEO, Simon Stevens; now the health service is very much on the Tories’ agenda, and with Labour currently distracted by their leadership race and the absence of a coalition partner to shoulder the blame in five years, the Government is wasting little time in progressing key pledges, including seven days working.

The Health Secretary has gone straight on the offensive declaring that he “will not allow the BMA to be a roadblock to reforms that will save lives” and that the Government is ready to “impose” a new contract on hospital consultants to remove their power to opt-out of weekend working if an agreement can’t be reached by September. The BMA’s declaration that the move represented a “wholesale attack on doctors” was backed up by some hospital staff taking to social media over the weekend to express their frustration using the hashtag #ImInWorkJeremy.

So why is there resistance to what most would consider being a worthy aspiration for patient care?

Aside from many doctors feeling as though Hunt has portrayed them as lazy, a major concern is that the Tories are not promising further investment to help the NHS achieve a seven day service beyond the funding pledged at the election; the stark reality is that the £8bn is going to “just about keep the lights on”, as one former NHS England official previously put it.

Ambitions to expand services will be hugely challenging during a period to find an unprecedented £22bn of efficiency savings, combined with other unresolved instrumental factors such as a workforce shortage and added pressures on the NHS from the continued squeeze on social care budgets. In addition, if the government’s plans were to deter people from entering the profession or put at risk quality of care during weekdays due to limited resources being refocused on Saturdays and Sundays, the challenges could be exacerbated.

But Tory Ministers are no strangers to disputes of this nature, and Hunt, who claims that the BMA is “not remotely in touch with what their members actually believe”, is unlikely to back down on the issue. The Health Secretary appears to be taking on the organisation with the same aggression as Theresa May vs. the Police Federation and Michael Gove vs. teachers’ unions.

Andy Burnham won’t have been surprised to be accused by Hunt of pandering to the unions when the Shadow Health Secretary called on the Government to take caution in its approach during a parliamentary debate later in the day. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Government chose last week to make its announcement; the highly controversial Trade Union Bill also began its passage through Parliament which could severely stunt the powers of unions if they wished to take action against policies such as those set out by the Health Secretary. The proposed legislation would have prevented previous NHS strikes in October 2014.

This is far from the first clash between the Conservatives and the doctors’ union. If the war of words between Hunt’s predecessor, Andrew Lansley, and what the then Health Secretary described as the “politically poisoned” BMA over the 2012 NHS reforms is anything to go by, we can expect this latest battle to intensify over the coming weeks and months.

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