Jeremy Hunt has fired a warning shot at the NHS, saying that the time for excuses over cost savings is over. In an op-ed for the Telegraph, the Health Secretary has helpfully reminded the NHS that £22 billion in efficiency savings are expected, in return for an extra £8 billion a year from the government:
‘Eight billion was what the NHS asked for. But with that commitment from taxpayers, the time for debating whether or not it is enough is over: the NHS now needs to deliver its side of the bargain, which is to make substantial and significant efficiency savings.’
In particular, Hunt has singled out the £3.3 billion spent on agency doctors on nurses. On the Today programme this morning, Hunt said it is ‘totally unacceptable’ that the unit cost of nursing has increased by as much as 42 per cent since the Francis Report into Mid Staffs was released in 2013 — which resulted in increased staffing levels. But the King’s Fund has said they foresee a £2 billion black hole in the NHS England finances this year. A spokesman described Hunt’s announcement as ‘highly predictable and overdue’ and said it will only make a dent into this funding gap.
Politically, Jeremy Hunt has gone out of his way to avoid any big conflicts with the health service. Still aware of the Andrew Lansley catastrophe, it appears that Hunt is hoping to get through his term as Health Secretary without making too many enemies. But this does not mean he doesn't care — Hunt has made a habit of making regularly visits to hospitals, gaining first hand view about what is going on in the health service.
So what are his motivations here? His target appears to be Simon Stevens, the all-powerful head of NHS England. After taking over from David Nicholson last year, Stevens has been vocal about the challenges facing the health service in light of a growing and ageing population, combined with tightened belts. Hunt appears to be reminding Stevens that the government has held up its side of what he requested — plugging the £30 billion funding gap — but now it’s his turn to deliver. Tackling expensive agency staff may be a good start but there is clearly plenty more to come if £22 billion is to be cut by 2020.