Jeremy Hunt is to remain health secretary following the Conservative Party’s victory in last week’s general election, and the formation of the first all-Conservative cabinet in 18 years.
Prime Minister David Cameron today confirmed Hunt’s reappointment to the position he took over in September 2012, following a stint as secretary of state for culture, media and sport.
During his time as health secretary Hunt, who is MP for South West Surrey, has been an advocate for IT in healthcare, notably calling for a “paperless NHS” in a speech to Policy Exchange in 2013.
The paperless vision was supported by two technology funds to drive the implementation of new technologies in hospitals, and ‘integrated digital care records’ to share information around healthcare communities.
However, the funds suffered a significant set-back with the announcement in February 2015 that the Integrated Digital Care: Technology Fund, known as tech fund 2, had been cut by nearly £200 million.
Hunt later said that the money could return as part of a staged roll-out, but the Conservative manifesto failed to mention the paperless agenda.
It did repeat a 2010 commitment to give people “full access” to their electronic health records, which Hunt will continue to oversee, although these plans have been subject to several delays and changing definitions. Other IT issues facing the health secretary include concluding the care.data debacle.
IT may not be at the forefront of Hunt’s mind as he heads back to his old office, though. The NHS went into the election campaign facing a significant, immediate deficit, and the need to close a £30 billion gap between demand and funding by 2020-21.
The Conservative Party has committed to finding an additional £8 billion for the NHS by 2020, which its manifesto said would support the ‘Five Year Forward View’ launched by NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens in October 2014.
However, the plan will require significant up-front investment and a significant re-organisation of healthcare services into new models that may not prove popular at a local level. Hunt will also need to oversee a health system looking to build stronger links with social care, just as councils and welfare spending are braced for further cuts.
Commentators were mainly welcoming of Hunt’s return as a sign of stability following a tumultuous period for the NHS in England.
NHS Confederation chief executive Rob Webster said: “His reappointment provides stability in political leadership – something that can only help our members.
“The political will to support the implementation of the Five Year Forward View, the financial support for the NHS and the consequential changes in the way in which care is delivered will be high on the agenda. "
Chris Ham, chief executive of think tank The King’s Fund said the appointment will “bring some welcome continuity as the NHS enters one of the most challenging periods in its history.” Ham added that the financial situation should be top of Hunt’s agenda.
“His first priority must be to plug the growing black hole in NHS finances by securing additional funding for the current financial year. This should go hand-in-hand with a renewed drive to improve productivity to ensure the NHS is playing its part in responding to the pressures it is facing.
“The additional £8 billion a year by 2020 pledged in the Conservative manifesto is welcome but is the bare minimum needed to maintain standards of care and will not pay for new initiatives such as seven-day working. More money will also be needed for social care.”
The Nuffield Trust tweeted: “Congratulations to @Jeremy_Hunt on his reappointment on health secretary. Big challenges ahead for the NHS, including financial squeeze and need to transform services. We look forward to informing the debate & working w/ @jeremy_hunt & @DHgovuk”
Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of National Voices, the health and social care charity coalition, said Hunt “brought a much needed focus on the safety and quality of care” but added that the new government urgently needed to address the funding of social care.
“Further cuts to social care, and cuts to benefits, could have a damaging impact on people’s health, further escalating demands on the NHS.”