Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Matt Hancock MP Health Secretary

Sunday 6 January 2019


SOPHY RIDGE: Last year the NHS turned 70 and enjoyed a £20 billion birthday present from the Prime Minister. Now they have to work out what they are going to do with it because many believe the NHS needs some radical change if it’s to deliver world-leading healthcare into the next decade. The government is about to publish its 10 Year Plan for the NHS so we’re joined now by the Health and Social Care Secretary, live from the West Suffolk Hospital. Matt Hancock, thank you for being with us today.

MATT HANCOCK: Good morning, how are you?

SOPHY RIDGE: Not too bad, I hope you’re well as well. So tell us, what is in this plan?

MATT HANCOCK: Well as you say, the £20 billion extra that we’re putting into the NHS over the next five years is there to make sure it is sustainable for the long-term but money alone is not enough. We need to see a big shift in the way that health services are delivered so that essentially we focus on prevention as much as we do on cure. Of course, hospitals like this do an amazing job in helping people to get better when they’re ill but increasingly over the last generation, the focus needs to be on making sure that we support people in the community, that we support people for instance through GPs and that we ask people, as well as giving them rights for free care, free at the point of use, we also ask them to take responsibility to keep the pressure off the NHS and make sure it’s there for people who really need it.

SR: Some people in the Conservative party will think this sounds a bit like the nanny state.

MATT HANCOCK: Oh I don't think so at all. Asking people to take responsibility is the very opposite of that. We then need to empower them to do so, so for instance the ability to go and see your GP or have support in the community, even for somebody who is very frail, to be given the money to be able to make say improvements to your home so that you don’t trip, so that you don’t end up in this emergency department which is very expensive for the NHS as well as obviously very bad for the patient; making sure that we can help people to stay healthy is at the core of what a National Health Service should be doing and the focus just on what happens in hospitals means that we don’t spend enough thought, effort and resources – both government resources but also asking people to take responsibility themselves – to keep people healthy. The whole purpose of the NHS over the next ten years needs to shift towards helping people to stay healthy as much as curing them when they’re ill.

SR: You’ve got a bit of a problem though haven’t you and that’s about staff because currently there is 100,000 vacancies in the NHS. I am just going to talk you though some of the numbers because I’ll be honest, I was pretty shocked when I was doing the research for this interview. 41,000 unfilled nursing posts, 6,000 GPs short of the number that we need, 3000 midwives short – the 10 Year Plan isn’t going to work if you haven’t got the people to implement it.

MATT HANCOCK: Well of course when you put £20 billion into something we are going to need the people to deliver, absolutely right and the plan has a detailed workforce chapter and then there is going to be further working on making sure we have the people that we need. We need to recruit more, we need to train more and also we need to retain the people in the NHS who are working so hard now. Taking the pressure off them actually is one of the important things we can do to retain …

SR: But how can you do that?

MATT HANCOCK: Well let’s take the nurses figure that you gave, 41,000 vacancies you mentioned. Actually 30,000 of those vacancies are currently filled but they are filled through people working through for instance agencies rather than full time. That can be fixed. We also have got to have more because that still doesn’t bring us up to the full complement and so we are expanding training, we’ve got an expansion of the training budget, we’re going to make sure that we also recruit better and we have also got to make sure that, as I say, we retain those who are currently working in the NHS and a lot of that means taking the pressure off.

SR: You sound as if it is all under control but actually on the ground if you talk to people you get a very different picture. I was speaking to someone who works in a rural GP practitioner and they were saying in the last year they advertised for a nurse practitioner, a practice nurse and a GP and received zero applicants and that is not an isolated case. I mean this is a crisis isn’t it? A crisis where you haven’t got enough people who are working in the health service.

MATT HANCOCK: Well this is why we’ve got a long term plan and in fact we said before we thought of the 20 billion, £3.5 billion needed to go to primary care and community care. In fact we are going to be putting £4.5 billion extra into primary care and community care and yes, that means we are going to need a lot more community nurses, we’re going to need more GPs as you say, we’ve got a target for more GPs and this is all part of the plan, to make sure we have people. You know, there’s a big picture here. If you step back we have a population that is ageing and also getting wealthier and as populations get wealthier and as they age, they need more healthcare and that means we need more people focused on healthcare and keeping people healthy, so that requires training, it also requires recruitment and part of the plan is to solve exactly the sorts of issues that you are talking about and exactly the sorts of shortages that you mentioned from talking to the people who you did.

SR: You’re talking about the challenges of an ageing population and of course one of the big challenges facing the NHS is social care but I haven’t found anything on social care in this plan, in the brief that we’ve been given, so can you tell me when the Green Paper is going to be finally published on it?

MATT HANCOCK: Yes, we’re going to have a Green Paper on social care soon. The plan does actually cover the very important links between health and social care because the link between making sure you can get people out of hospital when they don’t need to be in hospital and they do need care, that’s critical and…

SR: So when will the plan be published?

MATT HANCOCK: In the coming weeks. Clearly there is a big focus on one other big subject as well in Parliament at the moment but the plan is, the Green Paper is well developed and it fits with and goes alongside this long-term plan for the NHS.

SR: Part of the plan which I know you are very passionate about is technology and you are talking about targeting people with unhealthy habits, for example people who enjoy smoking, enjoy drinking, for example, with targeted adverts, a bit like politicians do during election campaigns. Does that mean that medical data will become available to private companies?

MATT HANCOCK: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. What we propose there is that as part of this approach to try to support people to stay healthy, in the past public health messages have tended just to go to the population as a whole. We all know the mantra that you should eat five a day, that is a public health message and normally we give the same message right across the population. Increasingly a with new technology actually you can better target those messages so instead of saying to everybody the same thing, you can say for instance, if you are a smoker, that is very bad for your health but if you are a smoker and you’re pregnant, that’s not only bad for your health but seriously bad for your baby’s health and we can target messages to people to try to make sure that they maintain healthier lifestyles instead of, and what I don’t like in this area is punishing the masses for problems that only a minority has. Take alcohol for example, a fifth of people drink a third of all the alcohol … Sorry, 5% of people drink a third of all the alcohol in the country, 5% and yet many of us like a nice pint and it’s perfectly healthy, so I think instead of things like minimum unit pricing that some people suggest, we should target measures so that if somebody has a serious drinking problem that leads them to end up using the NHS in a hospital like this, then they should get much more active intervention and counselling to try to support them so that we’re not stopping most people from having a perfectly healthy drink or punishing them and instead we’re tackling the problem where it really is serious.

SR: Now Brexit of course affects all government departments at the minute and a lot of people are very worried that if there is no deal there will be shortages of medicine so can you as Health Secretary guarantee now that even if there is a deal, if no deal can be reached, people will be able to get the medicine that they need?

MATT HANCOCK: Yes, we are confident that if everybody does what they need to do then we’ll have an unhindered supply of medicines. Obviously this is very, very important. In all Brexit scenarios, no matter what happens in those negotiations, people should be able to get their supplies and there is an awful lot of work going on to ensure that that’s the case and we’re confident that so long as everybody does what they need to do, because a lot of this relies on the pharmaceutical companies and others so it isn’t entirely in the gift of the government, but we need to do what we need to do and the pharmaceutical industry, so far that work has been progressing very well, I’ve been very pleased with the response of the pharmaceutical industry who obviously take this incredibly seriously and frankly a hospital should get their supply of drugs in exactly the same way as they do now, they shouldn’t notice any difference because the unhindered supply should be done in the pharmaceutical supply chain and we’ve got plans underway to make sure that that can happen.

SR: Being confident that something will happen isn’t the same as a guarantee though is it?

MATT HANCOCK: Well the truth is that in medical supplies, there are these sorts of shortages all the time. In the autumn there was a shortage of epipens because of a problem with supply at the factory in America where they were made, so actually the NHS and the Department deal with these sorts of issues all of the time so that is why I use the language that I do, because there is always all sorts of problems. Frankly, one of the jobs of the Health Secretary is to prepare for all sorts of things that you don’t want to happen but do happen. We have people at the moment out in the Democratic Republic of Congo dealing with Ebola, I don’t want Ebola to be a problem but I am absolutely happy to ensure that we put resources into stopping it. So this sort of planning happens all of the time and we are clear that we are not going to over-promise but we are confident that the plans are in place and so long as everybody does what they need to do, then there will be an unhindered supply of medicines in whatever the Brexit scenario.

SR: Okay, now it was reported in November that you told Cabinet that you couldn’t guarantee that people wouldn’t die as a result of a no deal Brexit. Now I’m not asking you to go into confidential Cabinet discussions, I know you don’t want to do that but can you guarantee that people’s lives will be safe?

MATT HANCOCK: I am confident that we will have the unhindered supply of medicines so long as the plans that we have in place are properly enacted. I didn’t actually say what you reported to Cabinet and I am really very clear on the position here which is that there is a lot of work to do to make sure that we get to that position. Some of it is for government and are doing that, I now have a whole floor of my department working on this and we’ve put money behind it already, as has been widely reported, making sure that there are facilities so that we have got the stockpiles of drugs that we need but I am also not going to over-promise. I am doing everything that we need to and everything that we can to make sure there is the unhindered supply no matter what happens.

SR: Okay and very briefly, the Prime Minister is going to be putting her Brexit deal back to a Parliamentary vote shortly, we believe in the next fortnight or so. Do you think anyone has changed their minds over Christmas?

MATT HANCOCK: Well I certainly hope that the chances of the deal going through have improved. If people have gone back to their constituencies, as I have, and talked to normal people, then they will have found an overwhelming sense of just please can we get on with it. The plan on the table is the best plan, it will get rid of all the problems that we’ve just been talking about in terms of no deal. It will also mean that we have both a close economic relationship with the EU in the future and deliver on the referendum result. I think it is overwhelmingly the best way forward compared to even no deal or a second referendum which will be divisive, hugely divisive, but it wouldn’t be decisive because people would say well why not have the best of three? So I’m very confident that the plan is the best way forward and I hope that on listening to constituents and taking a bit of time to consider the questions over Christmas, people can back the plan that gets on and delivers Brexit and delivers Brexit in a way that means that our economy can thrive and we can then support our public services like the NHS and there’s a great bright future out there for this country and we need to get on with building it.

SR: Okay, Matt Hancock, thank you very much.

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