[Editor of The Muslim News Ahmed J Versi, interviewing Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the Dept of Health Offices o the future of the NHS (Photo Hasnain Hudda/Muslim News) ]
By Ahmed J Versi
Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, insists that the Government is fully supportive of the National Health Service and has denied supporting calls for it to be privatised.
In 2005, Hunt was the co-author of Direct Democracy – Agenda for a New Model Party which called for the ‘denationalisation’ of the NHS. “Our ambition should be to break down the barriers between private and public provision, in effect denationalising the provision of healthcare in Britain, so extending to all the choices currently available only to the minority who opt for private care,” the booklet said.
But in an exclusive interview with The Muslim News Editor, Ahmed J Versi, the Minister was adamant that he did not support the denationalisation policy. “I didn’t say that, I co-authored a booklet, I contributed an essay to a booklet in which someone else wrote that but I’ve never said that and I’ve never believed it.”
He said that the NHS was already celebrating its 65th anniversary “being one of the best healthcare systems in the world.” The NHS is “still the reason why, by a huge margin, more people say they are proud to be British than anything else, more than the royal family, the armed forces, more than team GB and it’s something that we’re really very very proud of.”
“The fact that we’ve had such a lot of publicity about problems in the NHS in the last few months is a sign that we’re determined to make it better and we want it, the concept of the NHS is that rich or poor, north or south, black or white, you’re going to be entitled to the best healthcare no matter who you are and that’s something that is really close to the heart of every British person and we’re really proud of that,” he said.
Hunt’s appointment as Secretary of State for Health last year was seen sending a signal of intent that the Government may be planning to replace the NHS with a national insurance model like in the US and elsewhere. The service has been slowly chipped away since the late Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, set the wheels in motion towards privatisation over 20 years ago.
The NHS is continually being subjected to reforms and has led to further cuts in the current economic climate. But Hunt insisted that the Government had taken very difficult decisions to “protect” the NHS budget but that it was demands for services that were “going up by about 4% a year” because of the ageing population and meant “we have to make efficiencies”.
He remained reluctant to say where he saw the NHS in 50 years time and whether maybe half of it would then be privatised. “The NHS has always been a mixed economy in the sense that some NHS services have always been provided by private and independent sector provider. But I think the heart of the NHS is public provision and I don’t expect that to change,” Hunt said. He said he did not expect even 50 per cent of the services would go private. “We don’t have this great thirst to use private education in this country and that’s because of the high standards of state schools and that’s what I’d like to see in our NHS,” he said.
On other services, like increasing care at home for the elderly, the Minister said that he was not going to pretend it was not very challenging with resources they have. “I mean we are in a situation where as a country we have to balance our books. I would dearly love the NHS to have been able to have some real times increases in its budget much greater than the increases we’ve had but we have a very difficult financial climate and you know as a country we’re trying to sort out the deficit.”
Hunt was also challenged about the inequalities in the NHS, not only between North and South in the sense poor and rich, but ethic and non ethnic minorities and why the death rates amongst the people over 65 between richest and poorest areas are huge. “We made it a specific duty of NHS to reduce health inequalities. But it’s interesting how it’s not always simply a question of difference between rich areas and poor areas, very often you’ll find two different poor areas like Hackney and Tower Hamlets that are very close to each other that have very different health outcomes,” he said. There were “lots of underlying reasons” and probably at the heart is public health like higher rates of smoking, higher rates of obesity, lower rates of exercise that need to be tackled.
The Minister agreed that awareness of health risks from smoking and obesity and access to services provided needed to be improved also among ethnic minorities. “I’m most concerned about is the higher prevalence rate of diabetes in most ethnic minority communities. The number of people with diabetes is doubled to 3 million in the last 12 years and at the current rates it’s going to double again in the next 12 years and that has a huge impact on people’s health.
“But I think we won’t succeed in programmes that increase awareness by things that we do nationally, we actually devolved the public health budget to local authorities because we think this is the best way to solve this is local action, but we need their success to be accountable. So we’re not just devolving the budgets to local areas, we’re actually measuring how successful they are and publishing those results so that the areas that are less successful can learn from the programmes that are working that are more successful,” he said.
The Health Secretary denied that the Government does not measure equality outcomes for the ethnic communities even though evidence shows that the outcomes is less among ethnic minorities compared to the general population. “We measure life expectancy among different ethnic groups and amongst different social groups. We do measure what outcomes are in more disadvantage areas compared to more affluent areas and by exposing that difference, we have an obligation, we have made a legal obligation of the NHS to reduce health inequalities.”