Ex-Tory adviser slams new Department of Health team as ‘horrifying ... who know nothing' ahead of tough winter
Rachel Wolf, who co-authored the 2019 Conservative manifesto and was previously an adviser to Michael Gove and Number 10, described the appointments as “horrifying”.
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The Prime Minister conducted a Cabinet reshuffle yesterday (13 November) promoting Victoria Atkins to Health Secretary, Andrew Stephenson as health and secondary care minister and party grandee Dame Andrea Leadsom to a junior role in the department. None of the new appointees have had any experience in the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) previously.
Rachel Wolf, who co-authored the 2019 Conservative manifesto and was previously an adviser to Michael Gove and Number 10, described the appointments as “horrifying”. She said: “I do find it completely shocking that just before we go into an NHS winter, we now have an entire suite of NHS ministers who know nothing about it and have never run any part of it before.”
Speaking at a UK in a Changing Europe discussion on Brexit, Wolf, who is now a founding partner at consultancy Public First, added: “It’s just horrifying, I find it really horrifying.”
When asked about the comments by NationalWorld, Rishi Sunak’s spokesman said: “The public understands that secretaries of state are not appointed on the basis of specific knowledge about the area, health or elsewhere.
“What we have seen from the Prime Minister’s appointments is that people with the right skills are in the right roles so that they can deliver for the public, but it’s an established principle in government that you do not need to be subject specialists in order to oversee and hold accountable those who do have that specialism.”
Sunak moved Steve Barclay from Health to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to bring in Atkins. He carried out the reshuffle to ensure “we have a united and strong team at the top of government”, his press secretary told journalists. She added that the Prime Minister "believes collective responsibility is a very important principle".
Helen Whately retained her role as minister for social care, as well as Maria Caulfield, who is minister for mental health and women’s health strategy.
Atkins takes over the Department of Health and Social Care at a time of crisis. NHS waiting lists recently hit another new record of 7.7 million. The Prime Minister pledged to reduce this at the start of the year, when the number of people waiting was at 7.2 million. In order to do this, Atkins will have to resolve the junior doctors and consultant strikes. The NHS is also likely to come under significant pressure this winter as always.
As Wolf said, Atkins has no prior experience in the health department, having moved over from the Treasury. Prior to that she was Minister of State for Prisons and Probation, Minister for Afghan Resettlement and also held a junior role in the Home Office while Theresa May was Prime Minister. Prior to becoming an MP in 2015, she was a barrister.
Her husband, Paul Kenward, is the chief executive of British Sugar, one of the largest sugar companies in the world. Campaigners have been pushing the government to have stronger public health messages around obesity and sugar. Kenward also is involved with a company that owns a legal cannabis farm, to help people with severe epilepsy, which is also relevant to Atkins’ new role.
On arriving at DHSC, she said: “Our NHS matters to us all, and I look forward to working with NHS and social care colleagues to bolster services during what promises to be a very challenging winter period, cut waiting lists and improve patient care.”
Speaking about Atkins’ appointment, British Medical Association council chair Prof Philip Banfield said: “Never before have our health and social care services been in such crisis. Sixteen months ago, when Atkins’ predecessor was first appointed, we said he needed to prioritise investment to put health and social care services back on a sustainable footing, and have a credible plan to both recruit enough staff and most importantly retain the doctors we have.
“We also made plain that if the government had no plan to address the long-term decline in doctors’ pay, it would set a collision course with the profession. Sadly, Steve Barclay chose to ignore much of this, leaving doctors forced to take industrial action, millions of patients on ever rising waiting lists and a workforce plan that many deem undeliverable.
“Coming from the Treasury, Atkins will hopefully now understand that the cost of continued inaction is greater than the additional investment needed to bring these disputes to an end. The benefits to patients and the economy of getting patients healthier and into work where appropriate are obvious.”
Stephenson has previously held a number of government roles, including Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, chairman of the Conservative Party and Transport Minister, but no roles related to health. Dame Andrea Leadsom has held several Cabinet posts including Business Secretary and Environment Secretary, but also has no prior experience in DHSC.