At his first Commons question session since he was appointed Health secretary, Jeremy Hunt was instantly forced to defend the spiralling costs of the Coalition’s NHS reforms. Labour attacked the government’s plans, saying that the cost of redundancies caused by restructuring has risen to £1.6bn – up £400m on original estimates. Hunt responded by arguing that the measures would bring long-term efficiency, and eventual savings of £1.5bn a year.
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham led the criticism, attacking the £1bn sum earmarked for managerial redundancy packages, with 1,300 leaders set to receive six-figure payoffs at the same time that 6,100 nurses are made redundant. Burnham also accused the coalition of breaking its promise to increase health spending above the rate of inflation, saying that the service had endured a “real-terms cut, two years running”.
Leaders from the health profession have joined in the criticism, with British Medical Council council chair Dr Mark Porter reiterating that NHS reorganisation was unnecessary, would expend valuable time and energy and would ultimately cost money. The restructuring, Porter argued, could only lead to a fragmentation of the NHS – and, with a new emphasis on competition rather than cooperation, the target of £20bn efficiency savings by 2015 would be far more difficult to achieve.
Hunt maintained his stance on the long-term benefits of reorganisation, claiming that the total savings over the length of the current Parliament would total £5.5bn – a figure that met with audible Opposition scepticism. He also criticised the previous Labour government’s reliance on PFI: the disastrous system that left the NHS with £73bn of debt. With the wheels of reform already in motion, Hunt has inherited an onerous task from his predecessor Andrew Lansley.