Brace yourselves for health week. After the rip-roaring success of the government’s ‘stop the boats’ week, you might forgive the NHS for looking a bit scared that now ministers have the health service on their media grid for the coming days. As with last week’s focus on illegal immigration, the government is kicking off with a series of pre-briefed stories in the Sunday newspapers about the health service – and it’s striking how many of them are designed to take the fight to Labour.
There’s the claim in the Sun by Welsh Secretary David Davies that Sue Gray, who is about to become Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, ‘dragged her heels’ on data showing how the NHS was performing in Labour-run Wales. The Labour Party has described it as ‘desperate’, and it does seem a rather silly claim but it is part of a more aggressive approach by Rishi Sunak towards Labour. So too is the letter from Health Secretary Steve Barclay to the Welsh and Scottish governments offering them spare capacity in NHS and independent sector hospitals in England. Given the limited extent of that capacity, this is more about highlighting that performance is, at least in Barclay’s view, worse in the two devolved nations governed by other parties than it is about dramatically cutting waiting lists and times. At least the health week has been scheduled for after the latest NHS England waiting statistics, which came out last week and smashed records once again at nearly 7.6 million people waiting for treatment.
Sunak’s advisers have been arguing for some time that he needs to attack Starmer rather than just hope that his hard work pays off and is noticed by the electorate.