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Pulse 2018 review: Matt Hancock's rocky start as health secretary

matt hancock

matt hancock

The NHS entered its 71st year in the summer with a bang.

Jeremy Hunt, the longest-serving health secretary in its history, shuffled off to take the helm at the Foreign Office amid chaos caused by Brexit, leaving the top health job up for grabs.

It’s probably fair to say that few people had even heard of Matt Hancock when he was appointed to the position in July.

The relative unknown had spent just six months in the Cabinet as digital, culture, media and sport secretary before stepping into the breach and taking on one of the most challenging jobs in government.

So, people waited with bated breath to see what this rookie could do. Almost six months on, Mr Hancock has definitely made waves.

In terms of general practice, some positive murmurs have come from the health secretary’s direction.

He described GPs as the ‘bedrock’ of the NHS, adding that more resources need to be directed into primary care to reflect the fact that it is responsible for ‘the bulk’ of prevention and predictive medicine, which have ‘more than twice the impact on the length of healthy life’.

This focus on prevention forms a large part of Mr Hancock’s vision for the NHS, which will see GPs’ roles shift slightly to increase social prescribing. 

How this is expected to work, and how general practice will be recompensed for its contribution, will be explored in the government’s 10-year plan, due to be released in the new year.

Some minor details have been revealed. So far primary and community services have been promised £3.5bn of the additional annual £20.5bn pledged by the Government alongside its forthcoming plan - on the condition of providing new rapid-response 24/7 community teams and offering support to care homes.

But, as the first six months of Mr Hancock’s tenure come to an end, any optimism surrounding his commitment to general practice has been eroded by his links with digital provider Babylon.

The health secretary has made no bones about being a technophile, and he clearly sees digitisation and technology having a far bigger role in the NHS – especially in general practice.

However, his endorsement of Babylon’s GP at Hand app is seen by many as a step too far. He has called the app, which offers online video consultations to NHS patients, ‘brilliant’ and – in an interview with an Evening Standard supplement, which unbeknown to him was sponsored by Babylon – admitted to being well-known for using it.

It’s hardly a show of solidarity with the profession that Mr Hancock supposedly believes underpins the health service.

Such strong support for the model could even be hammering nails into the general practice coffin: GP leaders certainly worry that it is ‘threatening general practice across the UK’.

The level of concern around his endorsement of Babylon was so great that it prompted GP leaders from English LMCs to warn they ‘cannot have confidence’ in the health secretary if he continues his support.

However this story develops, it will be the highly anticipated 10-year plan that serves as Mr Hancock’s legacy.

When it comes to general practice, will the new health secretary be Santa or Scrooge? That is the £3.5bn question.

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