The National Conservatism (NatCon) conference kicks off today in Westminster, London, featuring a roster of high-profile speakers drawn from the upper reaches of the government and the conservative right.
A DeSmog analysis has found climate denial and a hostility to net zero to be a common feature among many of the individuals speaking at the three-day summit.
The gathering comes as Rishi Sunak’s government – which is already off track to meet the UK’s climate commitments – pursues new fossil fuel extraction, and prominent figures in the right-wing media continue to cast doubt over net zero policy.
The NatCon conference is being organised by the US-based think tank the Edmund Burke Foundation (EBF) and intends to catalyse a “revival” of a political philosophy based on “national identity and culture” alongside “god and country”.
While energy and climate policy is oddly absent from the agenda, many of the speakers and their parent organisations have a record of hostility to climate action, a scepticism of climate science, and interests in fossil fuels.
The event features keynote speeches from Home Secretary Suella Braverman, and Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary Michael Gove. Braverman ran for Tory leader last year vowing to “suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve Net Zero by 2050”. They will be joined by David Frost, a Conservative peer and a director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), the UK’s most prominent climate science denial group.
Fellow conference speakers also include Lee Anderson, Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, who has claimed that people are “sick to death” of net zero, and former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has said that taking action on climate change is “unrealistic” because “it would have no effect for hundreds or possibly a thousand years.”
Another speaker is Conservative MP John Hayes, a former energy minister who received £150,000 between 2018 and 2020 from Lebanon-based oil company BB Energy for work as a “strategic advisor”. Also in attendance will be Conservative MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, and Conservative peer Daniel Hannan.
Cates used her speech to claim that “epidemic levels of anxiety and confusion” among young people are being caused by “culture, schools and universities” teaching that “our country is racist, our heroes are villains, [and] humanity is killing the Earth.”
Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat Climate Spokesperson, told DeSmog: “It is deeply concerning to learn that Conservative ministers would attend a conference with climate deniers who stand in the way of progress.
“We need leaders who are committed to finding solutions to this crisis, not those betraying the trust of the people they were elected to serve by ignoring the overwhelming evidence of climate change.”
The selection of high-profile MPs, peers, and ministers are attending the NatCon conference despite Conservative backbencher Daniel Kawczynski having been reprimanded by the party in 2020 for speaking at a NatCon conference in Rome alongside far-right politicians.
“Daniel Kawczynski has been formally warned that his attendance at this event was not acceptable, particularly in light of the views of some of those in attendance,” the Conservative Party said at the time. Kawczynski spoke alongside Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orban and other far-right figures from across the EU.
The Edmund Burke Foundation
NatCon conferences have been running since 2016 and have featured radical right-wing politicians, academics and journalists from across the world, including former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, and Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni.
The EBF, which has organised the conferences since 2021, is a US think tank founded in 2019 under the founding principle that “public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honoured by the state and other institutions both public and private.”
NatCon conference chairman Christopher DeMuth, who is co-chairing this week’s London conference, has previously expressed climate science denial and is tied to a number of think tanks that have opposed climate action.
DeMuth served as president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) from 1986 to 2006, an influential conservative think tank whose representatives have consistently cast doubt on humanity’s contribution to climate change.
The AEI has received over £2.9 million ($3,615,000) from ExxonMobil since 1998, and over £1.6 million ($2 million) from foundations related to petrochemicals giant Koch Industries from 2004 to 2017.
Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch drew criticism for meeting the AEI in November. Her predecessor Liz Truss met with the group in 2018.
In 2001, DeMuth wrote in the AEI’s Energy Crunch publication that “The Kyoto Treaty Deserved to Die”, and cast doubt on climate science. He wrote: “Although it is fairly well-established that the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed somewhat (one degree Fahrenheit) during the past century, it’s not clear why this happened.”
“Whatever the causes, we don’t know if future warming trends will be large or small, or whether the net environmental and economic consequences (including both beneficial and harmful effects) may be large or small,” he added.
It’s not clear whether DeMuth’s views towards climate science have evolved since. However, at the 2022 EU NatCon conference, he praised the contested science that emerged during the Covid pandemic and appeared to contrast this with a too-eager scientific consensus over man-made climate change. “The climate-change mantra of ‘the science is settled’ never got traction in a genuine crisis,” he said.
DeMuth is also a distinguished fellow of The Hudson Institute, a group which has reportedly worked to defeat climate bills in Congress. The group received more than £6.3 million ($7.9 million) in funding from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund between 2011 and 2013 – two opaque groups that have provided finance for anti-green causes.
DeMuth is also on the Alliance of Market Solutions board of advisors – an organisation of “conservative leaders” that aims to build support for policies that “protect the environment and deregulate and grow the economy.”
Another keynote speaker at the conference is Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation – a hub of opposition to climate action. The think tank, which influenced the policy of the Reagan administration, has platformed high-profile climate deniers such as the late S. Fred Singer, and received over £4.9 million ($6.1 million) from groups linked to the Koch family between 1997 and 2017.
The Heritage Foundation’s Vice President for Outreach, Andrew Olivastro, will also be speaking at the NatCon conference. Olivastro has said that environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing – based on standards measuring a business’s impact on society and the environment – “is a direct assault on the heart and soul of the free market economy”.
‘Doom Mongering Propaganda’
The London conference will also play host to a number of British speakers who have refuted the scientific consensus on climate change in recent years.
Keynote speaker Douglas Murray, Associate Editor at The Spectator, argued in 2020 that “terrible policy decisions” were being made due to “the false belief that we are seeing an increase in catastrophic weather events.”
A Carbon Brief analysis of 504 scientific articles examining the link between climate change and extreme weather events found that 71 percent of the events and their underlying trends were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change.
Elsewhere, Murray claimed that educating children about climate change was akin to “terrifying our children with doom mongering propaganda” which “is nothing less than abuse.”
Speaker Melanie Phillips, a regular contributor to the The Daily Mail, The Spectator and The Times, wrote in 2022 that “there is no evidence that anything is happening to the world’s climate that lies outside historic fluctuations.”
She continued by arguing that “net zero has been a major contributor to Britain’s soaring fuel prices and the cost of living crisis, which played an outsize role in defenestrating Boris Johnson by turning the public against him.”
Daily Telegraph columnist Sherelle Jacobs, who will also speak at the event, argued in 2019 that “CO2 emissions may not be the only reason for warming.”
She added: “sidelining studies that have, for example, found the natural climate system can suddenly shift, and ridiculing researchers who explore other possible variables – from solar changes to volcanoes – could be driving us further from the truth.”
Beyond climate science denial, many of the conference’s speakers have attacked green policies, with a particular focus on net zero.
Along with Lord Frost, the conference will host Gwythian Prins, a member of the GWPF’s academic advisory council. In 2021, Prins argued that “net zero agenda hands geopolitical control to China,” because green policies “attempt to defy the laws of thermodynamics.”
Toby Young, Editor of the Daily Sceptic, will also be speaking at the conference. Young wrote in The Spectator in 2022 that, “it’s not the fact of climate change that I’m sceptical about, but the claim that it’s anthropogenic [caused by humans]. I think that could be true, but the evidence isn’t compelling enough to justify the net-zero policy.”
A number of climate consensus studies conducted between 2004 and 2015 found that between 90 percent and 100 percent of experts agree that humans are responsible for climate change. A study published in 2021, which reviewed over 3,000 scientific papers, found that over 99 percent of climate science literature says that global warming is caused by human activity.
“There is no scientific evidence or method that can determine how much of the warming we’ve had since 1900 was directly caused by humans,” Young told DeSmog. “What we do know is that temperatures have varied widely over the last 600 million years, along with levels of greenhouse gases, and these natural forces did not stop operating at the start of the last century.
Young questioned the validity of studies that cite near unanimous agreement among scientists on climate change. “Science is a process, not a consensus. The unproven hypothesis that humans have caused all or most climate change since the Industrial Revolution does not lend itself to a yes or no answer. The debate is over how much or how little humans are responsible for”.
The National Conservatism website also recommends a number of books which dispute the scientific consensus on climate change. Of the 41 books listed on the website and reviewed for this article, 14 contain passages that either refute climate science, criticise climate action, or demonise those calling for climate action.
A number of speakers at the conference also have links to Legatum – the Dubai-based investment fund behind the broadcaster GB News, which regularly platforms views that are hostile to climate science and net zero. Legatum also funds the Legatum Institute think tank, which received over £61,000 ($77,000) from a Koch Industries foundation in 2018.
“Legatum is an investor in GB News, a platform which hosts individuals with views on both sides of the argument,” a Legatum spokesperson said. “GB News supports media plurality in the UK, bringing fresh perspectives to the national conversation.”
Five of the UK NatCon speakers are on the advisory board of The Alliance for Responsible Citizenship, a Legatum-funded enterprise, founded by Jordan Peterson and dedicated to empowering “responsible citizenship” by drawing “on our moral, cultural, economic and spiritual foundations.” ARC members speaking at the conference include: the Conservative MPs Cates, Hayes, and Kruger, EBF UK chair James Orr, and UnHerd columnist Louise Perry.
Fred de Fossard, who heads a research unit at the Legatum Institute and acted as a special advisor to Jacob Rees-Mogg between 2020 and 2022, will also be speaking at the conference.
Rees-Mogg is now a GB News host, as is Tory deputy chair Anderson. They will be joined at the NatCon conference by fellow GB News host Darren Grimes, who has used his TV platform to demand a Brexit-style referendum on the UK’s net zero target, which he called “an asphyxiating straitjacket bound around the body of Britain”.
“This collective of climate deniers should have representatives of this government nowhere near it – yet multiple cabinet ministers aren’t merely in attendance, they’re keynote speakers,” Green Party MP Caroline Lucas told DeSmog. “Ministerial links to this conference wipe away any remaining shred of this government’s climate credibility. It’s time to kick toxic fossil fuel interests out of politics once and for all.”
Heavy-drinking Criminal Boris Johnson is out. He should never have been prime minister since his character and history was well documented. There was plenty of evidence that he was a worse than useless absolute cnut. To be fair to him, he partied well.
Unfortunately the Conservative Party is now going to inflict a militaristic, pea-brained, basic maths misunderstanding prime minister in the pocket of big business on us. I was tempted to call her a bungalow but I’m thinking of a rattle with just the one pea moving freely inside bouncing and rattling off the inside of her skull.
The grim 6 foot-tall card contains messages from thousands of people who suffered during the PM’s leadership.
One message read: “My wonderful mum – a brilliant yet horribly overworked NHS surgeon for over 30 years – died in 2020 and I had to watch her tiny Covid-restricted funeral online from my home rather than being there.
“Meanwhile you were partying. You have no shame. You have no conscience. You have no integrity. You won’t be missed.
Another stated: “When a clown moves into the castle he doesn’t become a king, the castle becomes a circus. Good riddance.”
If Jeremy Hunt succeeds in replacing Boris Johnson as British prime minister, it will be another instance of the ‘nice Tory’ coming after the panto villain.
Hunt’s pitch to the Tory faithful is that he’s the ‘serious’ one: the earnest ex-head boy with a grasp of detail and the ability to get things done. And that impression appears to hold water, with even the liberal media repeating these ideas.
Earlier this week, The Guardian’s Ben Quinn waxed lyrical about Hunt trying to play the role of “elder statesman from the backbenches, offering gentle and usually friendly criticism over the government’s Covid mistakes”. Of his latest leadership hopes, Quinn was positive: “Firmly on the centrist side of the party, he could be viewed as a calming presence after the tumult of the Johnson years, if the membership are desperate for some stability.”
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The fact that Hunt was health secretary – the longest-serving in history – barely makes it into the narrative at all. If it does, it’s restricted to his battles with junior doctors and funding – both of which Hunt likes to portray as victories.
Maybe it’s not surprising that so much of the media takes at face value Hunt’s self-presentation as a nice guy with a “consensual approach” (slogan: “Unite to win”). For most of his tenure as health secretary – except, perhaps, during the junior doctor dispute – they fairly uncritically adopted Hunt’s persona of the ‘champion of patient safety’.
I spent much of Hunt’s period as health secretary running openDemocracy’s OurNHS section, investigating what he was really up to. I soon discovered that when you looked past his press releases, you found a very different story – one of missed targets, lengthening waits, crumbling hospitals, missed opportunities, false solutions, funding boosts that vanished under scrutiny, and blaming everyone but himself. This is that story, which was first published on openDemocracy on 13 July 2019.
Hunt’s hospital legacy
Hunt took over responsibility for the NHS in 2012. By the time he left the post six years later, patient experience and staff morale had both taken a dramatic turn for the worse across many key indicators. Winter crises deepened, with official figures showing 2017, 2018 and 2019 were successively “worst on record”. The British Medical Association (BMA) reported that by 2018, “the “winter crisis” has truly been replaced by a year-round crisis”.
Nationally and locally, a range of treatments were restricted. Hernia, hip and knee operation patients weren’t treated until they were in severe pain. Cataract operations and hearing aids were restricted to one eye or ear (who needs two anyway?). Vasectomies, erectile dysfunction treatment and diabetes monitoring were scrapped or severely restricted in growing numbers of areas. In response, NHS hospitals increasingly turned to offering ‘self-pay’ options to private patients.
Hunt oversaw years of historically low funding increases (around 1%, compared with an average of 6% in the years between 1997 and 2010, and compared with the 4.3% recommended by the Office of Budget Responsibility and the likes of the Kings Fund, Health Foundation and Nuffield Trust, as the minimum to keep up with health inflation and increasing demand). Perhaps most damagingly, he oversaw a significant cut to the amount that hospitals were paid per procedure (payments which make up three quarters of their income).
Hunt’s response was to send out “failure is not an option” missives to hapless local NHS executives, instructing them (on pain of having their entire board suspended) to clear their financial shortfalls, while making sure they did so “without compromising patient care”. So that’s all right then! Even when “extra” money was found, as it was to some extent after the 2015 election, it came with so many strings attached that frontline patient care received little benefit, and was often in the form of loans that mean, remarkably, hospitals are now more ‘indebted’ to the government, than they are to the PFI deals that are still squeezing them. Hunt’s parting gift, the NHS ‘Brexit Dividend’ birthday present, is also full of strings and inadequacies, as we’ll see below.
Hunt’s reaction to this was to introduce what I dubbed a “Hospital Closure Clause” into an unrelated piece of legislation, which stripped away many of the requirements to consult local people on future closures. Further closures, land sell-offs and down-grades to services and opening hours have followed. And justifications that the land sold off by hospitals would be used to provide homes for nurses have proved utterly hollow when it turned out that only 17% of the houses built – fewer than 1000 homes – would be ‘affordable’. The trend is likely to continue, given that Hunt’s much trumpeted ‘NHS birthday present’ (of which more later) did not cover capital funding for buildings and equipment.
In 2019, the NHS had a £6bn backlog of essential maintenance and repairs, as under Hunt £4.3bn was raided from capital budgets to pay daily bills. And hospitals were told (by the Naylor review) that the way to make up this shortfall was to sell off more land and buildings, and enter into more private finance arrangements.
This policy failure, during a funding squeeze, is perhaps not surprising – the reality is that care at home requires more, not less, funding than care in hospitals, as reviews by the University of Manchester, the British Medical Journal, the National Audit Office and even the Department of Health itself have shown. Hunt repeatedly ignored the many experts warning him that this was the case. In the end, though, billions of pounds of ‘transformation’ money supposedly set aside to deliver the policy change, instead had to be quietly re-purposed into keeping cash-strapped hospitals just about afloat.
Meanwhile, in vital but neglected areas such as general practice, maternity and mental healthcare, Hunt routinely over-promised and under delivered.
In October 2017, Hunt told MPs: “We’ve got 30,000 more people working in mental health today than we had when [Labour] left office” – a claim that was revealed to be false. Not long before leaving office, he won headlines for promising that mothers would get a ‘dedicated midwife’ throughout pregnancy and birth, although later reports suggested that this wasn’t, in fact, the case, and that women were just being promised ‘one of a team’. In other words, no change.
Not long before his departure, Hunt told Parliament that NHS privatisation “is not happening” and was “fake news”. But his actions suggest he was as ideologically wedded to continued competition and privatisation (in various guises) as his notoriously destructive predecessor, Andrew Lansley. An enormous amount of clinical and management energy was wasted in having to work to keep services from being chipped off by the private sector – even though such privatisation is a hugely costly process with no proven benefits.
While various privatisations collapsed, failure seemed to be rewarded. In 2013, a privatised treatment facility in Stevenage run by the company Clinicenta was bought back by the NHS following the deaths of three patients during routine surgery, with local officials raising concerns about “serious failings” and “evidently substandard” care. But just as Clinicenta was collapsing, its parent company – Carillion – was rewarded with further NHS contracts including major PFI schemes at Royal Liverpool Hospital and Midland Metropolitan Hospital.
After Carillion itself collapsed, The Guardian revealed documents that showed that, “civil servants working for Jeremy Hunt successfully lobbied the Cabinet Office to stop failing Carillion hospital projects from being overseen by an independent watchdog”.
The tech bonanza is another novel form of privatisation. Hunt’s successor Matt Hancock has been criticised for an overly credulous attitude to technology, but Hunt laid all the groundwork. The NHS signed substantial contracts with the likes of health app firm Babylon under his oversight, as well as running into a massive controversy over the care.data project in which Hunt and his tech Tsar, Tim Kelsey, were unable to adequately reassure a concerned public that personal data would not be sold to private firms. In what he described as his “most important speech as health secretary”, Hunt boasted that; “The future is here… 40,000 health apps now on iTunes… this is Patient Power 2.0.” The announcement was somewhat overlooked as it was also the speech in which he launched his astonishing attack on doctors (more below). But perhaps Hunt envisaged a future with fewer doctors – not long afterwards, he faced fierce criticism by doctors for issuing “potentially fatal” advice to parents to use “Doctor Google” to diagnose their children’s rashes.
David Cameron sold the controversial 2012 Health and Social Care Act by claiming that it put doctors in charge of decision-making. In reality it put privatisers in that position, along with commercial providers taking over and sub-contracting to the NHS. In 2016, openDemocracy reported on a version of these arrangements called “Accountable Care Organisations”, an idea based on US hybrid insurer-hospital organisations such as Kaiser Permanente. This gives private providers involvement in decision-making about what treatments patients do or don’t receive, and financial incentives to minimise treatment (as Michael Moore’s film ‘Sicko’ exposes). Hunt visited the US firm at least three times.
However, Hunt did little to promote the real solution – reintegrating social care under the NHS’s public, free provision. Instead, he suggested that the ageing population was a massive “commercial opportunity” – and ‘integration’ began to look to campaigners like merely code for ‘helping the private care sector get its hands on more NHS cash’.
The underlying issues were left unresolved, the promised social care green paper was delayed no less than five times (and counting), experiments to ‘integrate’ ran into frequent problems, and the social care sector continued being just another convenient scapegoat for delays in discharging people from hospital. Hunt is still pursuing market solutions, suggesting during the leadership campaign that while social care cuts had gone too far, the answer is to ‘incentivise’ individuals to save for their own social care.
Perhaps none of this is surprising. Back in 2005, Hunt co-authored a book called ‘Direct Democracy’, which stated; “Our ambition should be to break down the barriers between private and public provision, in effect denationalising the provision of healthcare in Britain” and that the NHS was “no longer relevant in the 21st century”, although he has since distanced himself from the book’s vision.
Hunt adopted three key strategies to ensure that the NHS wasn’t his career graveyard, as it had been for many Tory predecessors: hiding, hiding, hiding the figures, and (most of all) hiding behind someone else. His biggest talent is also, in fact, Boris Johnson’s: ducking accountability. The strategies are somewhat different, of course. Johnson’s bluster makes you suspect you’ve been had (but it appears that Britain, or at least the Tory part of it, includes a lot of masochists who rather enjoy that). Hunt’s smoothness means you don’t even notice. And the success of these tactics tells us much about technocratic attitudes to democracy, accountability, leadership and so-called public service ‘reform’.
Hunt’s complaints about Johnson refusing to debate him rang hollow to those of us who have followed him closely. Hunt is famous for dodging debates, whether with junior doctors, angry hospital users, in parliament or on the ‘Today’ programme, on which Hunt was a regular no-show during NHS crises. Where he did appear, he often restricted his appearances to issues over which he had no actual control, such as promoting a sugar tax. In fact, he became so notorious for shirking debate that hospital campaigners launched a “Hunt the Hunt” campaign, and junior doctors camped out on his departmental doorstep.
Blaming the patients
Hunt had no end of people that he (and his media cheerleaders) could blame for the problems besetting the NHS.
First off, patients. Be they old people, for being too old (“a challenge more serious than global warming”, Hunt said, even though this narrative doesn’t actually reflect the reality that health needs are highest in your last years of life, whenever that comes). It is true that health needs are rising among the poorest – and health inequalities increasing sharply – but blaming austerity policies and inequality for rising health demand wouldn’t have endeared Hunt to anyone in the Tory party. Instead, he relied on the ‘ageing population’ line routinely, when pressed on failures to meet NHS targets – such as an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, where he said, “the targets you talked about are because of the pressures of an ageing population”.
To add insult to injury, under Hunt’s tenure, the dehumanising labelling of old people as “bed blockers” returned, even as he did nothing serious to solve the issues of social care. Then there were children – and parents – blamed for being too fat, even as public health funding to address such issues was slashed. And smokers, who, along with overweight people, started to be banned from routine surgery under Hunt’s watch. Such patient-blaming decimated the NHS’s core values of universalism and comprehensive care, to the horror of doctors and nurses.
I asked Hunt about this at an Institute for Government event not long before he left office. He told me blandly that, “this shouldn’t be happening”. But there was no sign of him taking any action to stop what he routinely blamed on ‘local decisions’ (as we’ll see again with rationing of care).
Always top of the scapegoat list, of course, are migrants. From 2013 onwards, Hunt’s department worked closely with the Home Office on a string of initiatives to impose the ‘hostile environment’ (a policy which the former head of the NHS described as a “national scandal”). That led to cases like Albert Thompson, the Windrush victim who was denied cancer care. Hunt went pretty unscathed when these scandals finally broke through into the public consciousness, and these restrictions are still largely in place – along with the upfront charging systems now set up in hospitals, which many have observed could now easily be rolled out to others.
Blaming the staff
Blaming the staff is, of course, another favoured tactic of politicians, and one that Hunt embraced wholeheartedly (though he would no doubt like to think of it as ‘delegation’).
In terms of senior staff, in 2013, Hunt hired his Oxford contemporary, Simon Stevens, as chief executive of the NHS. Stevens quickly adopted the role of media frontman whenever the going got tough.
In hiding behind Stevens, Hunt benefitted from the post-2012 legal framing of the NHS as a standalone organisation (or rather, a tangle of competing, squabbling standalone organisations), given its money and left to get on with it. When problems arose, it was down to ‘the NHS’s own plan’, and ‘local decisions’. No longer did the secretary of state have a duty to provide or secure healthcare for us all.
But on the whole, Hunt outsourced strategic policy thinking (and ‘heavy lifting’ to shift public attitudes on charging, privatisation and hospital closures) to costly and wasteful management consultants including the Big Four accountancy firms (despite promising to rein in this spending), not to mention a collection of sirs, lords and commissions, regulators, right-wing think tanks, and in-house consultants dubbed “ninja privatisers” who were responsible for numerous expensive failures. (To be fair to Hunt, quite a bit of this policy outsourcing strategy was developed by his health secretary predecessors, both Tory and Labour).
As a result of the 2012 Act, Hunt had just one last bit of legal and parliamentary accountability for the NHS – the “mandate”, which required him to put the NHS’s annual objectives before parliament. But in 2015, when the scope of the mandate was being revised for the next five years, his department issued a public consultation that Hunt somehow failed to actually tell anyone about (it wasn’t even published on their departmental consultation page) – a ruse that caused something of a backlash after OurNHS got wind of it, particularly given the hints about widespread withdrawal of treatment.
Frontline staff became Hunt’s favourite whipping boy
While senior staff and outsourced policymakers were convenient stooges, frontline staff became Hunt’s favourite whipping boy. He kicked off his tenure by telling parliament that “cruelty became normal in our NHS and no one noticed”, implying that the criticisms of the terrible Mid-Staffs scandal were normal for the million plus NHS workers.
But all this was just a foretaste of what was to come for doctors, nurses and other health workers.
In 2015, Hunt and Cameron promised a “seven-day NHS”, but Hunt was condemned in May 2016 by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, which deemed the plan “completely uncosted” and said that Hunt’s department had made “no coherent attempt” to address the staffing impact of this pledge.
Hunt veered close to accusing anyone standing in his way of being responsible for “avoidable deaths”
Perhaps what aggravated and demoralised doctors and nurses more than anything else, was Hunt’s audacious use of tactical shroud-waving. Previous Tory health ministers frequently accused their opponents of using deaths to make political points. But Hunt repurposed this trick against his opponents, veering close to accusing anyone standing in his way of being responsible for “avoidable deaths”.
Announcing his intention to impose a new contract on doctors, Hunt claimed that “around 6,000 people lose their lives every year because we do not have a proper seven-day service in hospitals… No one could possibly say that this was a system built around the needs of patients – and yet when I pointed this out to the BMA they told me to ‘get real.’ I simply say to the doctors’ union that I can give them 6,000 reasons why they, not I, need to ‘get real’.”
Margaret McCartney, a GP, author and broadcaster, told me: “It’s dangerous to keep on misrepresenting data even when experts have told you that you are making a mistake… Hunt’s claim about weekend deaths, used to justify changes to the junior doctor contracts, has been debunked (patients admitted at the weekend tend to be sicker).”
The shroud-waving was a tactic he had already deployed effectively against his first parliamentary opponent, Andy Burnham, and indeed against interviewers. Questions about failures to meet targets on waiting times, when not being excused by the “ageing population”, were often met with impassioned statements about patients failed by the NHS in Mid Staffs, Morecombe Bay, Gosport and elsewhere – a strategy he also deployed consistently in media interviews (such as his interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, when he was challenged on LBC by an angry doctor in the same week).
He had deployed the tactic too, against Lewisham campaigners, when his administrator’s report suggested closing the hospital and related changes would “save around 100 lives a year”.
Indeed Hunt has made the “patients’ champion” persona his own. He told the New Statesman that he had made patient safety his “life’s mission” and that when he left frontline politics; “I want to write a book on patient safety. I would like to do for patient safety what Al Gore has done for climate change…”
In reality, having wielded the Francis report into the Mid Staffs scandal as a weapon from the get-go, he junked most of its key recommendations.
Having promised in 2013 to bring in minimum standards of safety for ratios of nurses to patients, two years later he and Simon Stevens quietly tore these promises up as too “mechanistic”, to the concern of the report’s author, Robert Francis. Hunt’s repeated promise to put the patient at the centre of everything that the NHS did, including in its constitution (another Francis report recommendation) was similarly junked a year after its headline-garnering work was done. Promises to protect whistleblowers resulted in just another toothless system. Moves towards openness were undermined by increased reliance on the market and private sector provision, with nothing done to address the destructive ethos of competition between and even within hospitals that Francis had identified as a key part of the problem at Mid Staffs.
Phil Hammond, the doctor and broadcaster who has written extensively on patient safety, told me: “Hunt developed a selective interest in some aspects of patient safety… so although he will be able to cherry-pick to make it look as if some aspects of safety got better…. Hunt repeatedly refused to introduce mandatory safe staffing levels… There are of course some brilliant NHS staff who are very dedicated to safety, who have improved the situation in their particular hospital or GP practice, but I don’t really see how Hunt can take credit for that. Finally, despite his strong words about no more cover-ups in the NHS and better support for NHS whistleblowers, many of them say the situation hasn’t improved and they are still not being listened to and are being persecuted.”
So much for Hunt’s “patients’ champion” persona.
And of course, much else that happened to the NHS under his watch wasn’t very good for patients, either – in terms of safety, but also access to healthcare, privatisation and rationing. And this is where the last of his strategies came in very useful.
Playing with the figures
Part of Hunt’s pitch is that he is “on top of the detail”. In reality, he has worked to make it harder or impossible for the rest of us to check-up on the detail. Once A&E waiting targets were routinely being missed, he simply stopped publishing weekly data on the failures and dropped hints that the target would soon be dropped. Similarly, in response to regularly missing the target on maximum 18-week waiting times for planned operations, that target was quietly dropped. In response to alarming headlines regarding the rising number of hospitals declaring ‘black alert’ (unable to guarantee life-saving emergency care, and having to divert patients elsewhere), the ‘solution’ was to ban hospitals from using the term ‘black alert’.
Under Hunt, the Department of Health routinely refused to answer parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests about which private companies the NHS’s money was going to on the basis that they didn’t centrally collate it. And it was also reluctant to release raw, uncollated spending data, being the last department to do so and only giving in after a petition to release it. Inconveniently timed information on the financial crisis engulfing hospitals was tucked away from view too.
Also worrying, it turns out (in the long term plan) that Hunt’s deal was conditional on the NHS achieving significant savings through the use of technology (something that many experts were dubious about), reducing face-to-face appointments by one third, and also on there being no additional pressures from the social care sector (that was on the verge on collapsing). And this 3.4% doesn’t apply to capital expenditure, staff training and pay, or public health budgets – all of which would remain up in the air until the next spending review. Theresa May promised the “Brexit dividend” would fund the increases. That didn’t quite pan out though, did it? As a Nuffield Trust health expert put it, “The NHS would be wise to hang onto the receipt for this particular birthday present.”
There are many more facts I could throw at you to help you see Hunt’s legacy. Public satisfaction with the NHS fell during Hunt’s time in office, for example. Both maternal deaths at childbirth and infant mortality started to worsen again towards the end of Hunt’s tenure, after decades of improvement. And one last statistic is perhaps the most damning. In an interview with the New Statesman, he quoted Stephen Pinker as saying that “life expectancy has gone up!”. While this is true globally, the story in Britain is different. Since 2015, projections for life expectancy in the UK have fallen by more than a year.
It tells you much about British politics that a man with Hunt’s record was promoted to foreign secretary, and after losing one leadership bid, again now stands a small chance of becoming prime minister. It tells us a huge amount about the state of the British press that Hunt is treated as a serious candidate.
And it’s worth remembering, that whoever succeeds Johnson will face the same advantages that Hunt has always had: an establishment that doesn’t care too much what happens to ordinary people’s services, so long as no one makes a fuss, and a pliant media, always ready to believe the spin of some old public schoolboy.
£2.6m: Refurbishment for White House-style press briefings
Downing Street has spent more than £2.6 million on renovations in order to hold White House-style press briefings, it was revealed on Saturday.
£37bn: Spending on troubled Test and Trace system
HuffPost UK revealed on Thursday that the small print of Sunak’s budget showed the Test and Trace system is to get another £15bn, bringing its total cost to £37bn. The funding for 2021/22 comes on top of this year’s spending allocation of £22bn.
MPs said that the “eye-watering” sums should prompt ministers to do more to prove that the system, run by Tory peer Dido Harding, was giving taxpayers real value for money.
£340,000: Payout to Home Office official after Priti Patel bullying claims
On Thursday, it emerged the government agreed a “substantial” payout to settle a top civil servant’s employment tribunal claim after he quit amid allegations of home secretary Priti Patel’s bullying.
£4.4bn: Additional costs of Brexit preparations
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union cost the taxpayer more than £4 billion in additional government costs, according to the Whitehall spending watchdog last March.
£150m: Millions of unusable face masks
During the early days of the pandemic, the government scrambled to secure deals with suppliers for precious personal protective equipment (PPE). Questions have been raised about many of the contracts, among the most notorious being a deal for 50 million face masks that did not work.
The masks were bought for NHS England from investment firm Ayanda Capital as part of a £252 million contract. But the government said because they used ear-loop fastenings rather than head loops, they may not have fit tightly enough for clinical use. It confirmed in court papers that the masks would not be used in the NHS.
£60m: Falling short of supplying computers to disadvantaged schools
A £60m contract was awarded for the education department to provide laptops to teachers and disadvantaged children during the lockdown.