Matt Hancock unveils ‘blistering’ NHS reforms as government prepares to seize control
Matt Hancock has unveiled plans to reform the NHS, insisting that the pandemic is the “right time” for the government to shake up the health service at “blistering pace”.
In its biggest set of reforms for a decade, ministers are set to be handed “general power to direct NHS England on its functions”, amid widespread speculation its chief executive Sir Simon Stevens will quit later this year.
The health secretary said that changes would make it easier for health bodies to work together in a new integrated system as part of a new focus “on the health of the population, not just the health of patients”.
But Labour has questioned the timing of the changes “in the middle of the biggest public health crisis our NHS has ever faced”, saying healthcare staff were “exhausted and underpaid”.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said the NHS is currently “on its knees” as the country grapples with the worst wave of coronavirus to date.
“Primary care staff are vaccinating and will be doing so for months ahead, including possibly delivering booster jabs in the autumn. And today we learn that 224,000 people are waiting over 12 months for treatment — and this secretary of state thinks this is the right moment for a structural reorganisation of the NHS,” Ashworth told the Commons this afternoon.
But Hancock responded by asking why Britain should wait “to make sure the NHS is more accountable”.
The plans are understood to have begun before the 2019 election, but have been accelerated amid mounting frustration from Number 10 over the state of the health service during the coronavirus crisis.
Announcing details of a government White Paper on the NHS reforms, the health secretary insisted that “there is no better time than now” to restructure the health service.
He added that wide-scale overhaul would allow the “blistering pace” at which the NHS set up Nightingale hospitals around the country and shifted appointments online to be maintained after the pandemic.
“The response to Covid-19 has, in my view, accelerated the pace of collaboration across health and social care, showing what we can do when we work together flexibly, adopting new technology focused on the needs of the patient and setting aside bureaucratic rules,” Hancock told MPs.
What changes will be made?
The NHS shake-up will “bring health and care services closer together to build back better by improving care and tackling health inequalities”, according to the government’s blueprint for change published this afternoon.
The reforms will focus on “strengthening the secretary of state’s powers of intervention, oversight and direction,” which will in turn “reinforce the accountability to Parliament of the secretary of state and government for the NHS”.
The plan will involve scrapping dozens of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) — which “buy” healthcare on behalf of patients and creating “integrated care systems” to take charge of planning care.
CCGs currently control around £85bn of £201.7bn total annual spend by the NHS.
The proposed legislation will also enhance the power of Whitehall to intervene in the provision of social care. The Care Quality Commission will be handed fresh powers to investigate local councils over their delivery of adult social care.
Hancock will also gain powers to block closures of hospitals, A&Es and maternity units under the new plans. He will also be able to add fluoride to water across the country and intervene on the quality of hospital food. However, he will not be able to formally direct a local hospital or to intervene in clinical decisions.