Pushing the boundaries

The Department of Health Christmas card list will probably be a few names shorter at the end of this week.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been taken out to the proverbial woodshed not once, but twice in recent days. Not that there’s anything terribly unusual about that – any minister or secretary of state expects criticism as part of their job description. And that’s amplified for Mr Hunt, given he’s effectively the lightning rod for the national institution that is the NHS.

What will spark concern – and should give the Department of Health pause for thought – is that Mr Hunt has been accused of doing the same thing twice, which is obstructing the publication of research. The first incident occurred earlier in the week, when the Health Select Committee Chair Sarah Wollaston – a Conservative MP like Mr Hunt – accused the Health Secretary of blocking the publication of a much anticipated study into links between sugar and obesity. And this has been compounded by suggestions – arising from emails obtained through FOI by the Health Service Journal – that Mr Hunt’s office might have leaned on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) to prevent the publication of data on safe staffing numbers.

The two incidents have potential to cause serious damage, particularly if opponents of Mr Hunt attempt to establish that they represent a pattern of behaviour. Political strategists and communications professionals will remember the difficulties the Government got into when the Department of Health refused to publish the ‘risk register’ for the Health and Social Care Act. By refusing to disclose potential weaknesses with the legislation, the Government handed the initiative to its critics, who were able to expound theories about how the Act would irrevocably harm the NHS.

The danger for the Department of Health – and for Mr Hunt – is that similar accusations are made in the near future. These would undermine the Government’s messaging on health by calling into question the transparency of the Department and whether the Health Secretary is exceeding the boundaries of his authority. While issues over a report on sugar and a report on staffing levels might disappear relatively quickly, the Government can ill-afford to give its critics opportunities, particularly when building its credentials as the party of the NHS will be heavily linked to the Tories’ electoral fortunes in 2020.