In Depth

Jeremy Hunt’s top controversies as longest-serving health secretary

MP overtakes Norman Fowler with five years and 274 days in the job

Jeremy Hunt today becomes the UK’s longest-serving health secretary.

“With five years and 274 days under his belt, he is the longest-serving custodian of the NHS, having surpassed Margaret Thatcher’s health minister, Norman Fowler, and Aneurin Bevan, the man who set up the health service in the first place,” says the BBC’s Nick Triggle.

Describing him as “the great survivor” of the Tory government, The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge notes there is something a little “anachronistic” about Hunt.

The Spectator’s James Kirkup agrees, saying: “A posh, rich white man who carries little ideological baggage and wants to talk about what works, [Hunt] could easily be seen as the continuation of the Blair-Cameron centrism that’s currently very much out of fashion.”

All the same, Hunt has survived “everything that the political furies could dream up”, says Wooldridge,  including “ first strikes by NHS doctors for 40 years”. 

“He even dodged the sack”, adds Woodbridge, noting that in January Theresa May “tried to move him to the Business Department, but he persuaded her not only to keep him in his job, but to give him responsibility for social care, too”.

Here are some of Hunt’s more controversial moments in the job.

Hunt vs. Lewisham Hospital

Hunt was embroiled in a long legal battle with an NHS hospital in Lewisham, southeast London, in 2013.

Hunt had decided to “substantially cut services and close departments, including vital maternity, A&E and intensive care units”, despite Lewisham hospital being one of London’s best performers, says the i newspaper. The health secretary said the cuts were necessary because neighbouring South London Healthcare NHS Trust had been losing more than £1m every week.

Following protests attended by as many as 25,000 people, first a High Court judge and then the Court of Appeal judges found that Hunt “had acted outside his powers and therefore unlawfully” in deciding to substantially cut services.

The then-shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, described the decision as a “humiliation” for Hunt.

The Labour MP said: “Instead of graciously accepting the first court ruling, he has squandered thousands of [pounds of] taxpayers’ money trying to protect his own pride and defend the indefensible.”

Hunt argued that he wanted to improve patient care and save lives.

Hunt vs. doctors

Hunt faced a number of criticisms from within the NHS over his proposals for a seven-day service, mandated in the Tory manifesto.

A cross-party report in 2016 by MPs criticised the plans, saying that “no coherent attempt” had made to understand staffing needs, and that the plan was “completely uncosted” and contained “serious flaws”.

Hunt was also criticised by top stroke doctors for using historic and out-of-date data to try to show that patients being treated for strokes were more likely to die if they are admitted at weekends.

In a letter to The Sunday Times, they wrote that there had been significant improvements since 2004–12, the period covered by data that Hunt had referenced, and that more recent figures showed there was “no longer any excess of hospital deaths in patients with strokes admitted at the weekend”.

Tied up in the furore was also Hunt’s decision to impose new contracts on junior doctors without their consent, which resulted in a number of strikes taking place across the country.

In February 2016, during the height of the strikes, a poll named him as the UK’s most disliked politician.

Hunt insisted that the then-government was increasing NHS funding so it could become the “safest, highest quality healthcare system in the world”.

Hunt vs. Hawking

Renowned astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking publicly criticised Hunt’s management of the NHS on a number of occasions. In an article for The Guardian last August, Hawking wrote: “Hunt’s statement that funding and the number of doctors and nurses are at an all-time high is a distraction. Record funding is not the same thing as adequate funding. There is overwhelming evidence that NHS funding and the numbers of doctors and nurses are inadequate, and it is getting worse.”

In January 2018, Hawking won a case to take Hunt to court for alleged “back-door privatisation of the NHS”. Hunt insisted that the scientist was incorrect, writing in The Guardian: “The NHS... will remain a single–payer, taxpayer-funded system free at the point of use – and should do forever as far as I’m concerned.”

Following Hawking’s death earlier this year, Hunt was condemned on social media for trying to lead tributes to the former Cambridge University professor.

Hunt vs. the Parliamentary Register of Members’ interests

Earlier this year, The Daily Telegraph revealed that Hunt breached anti-money laundering legislation by failing to declare his 50% interest in a property firm to Companies House within the required 28 days. Hunt also failed to disclose his interest in the property firm on the Parliamentary Register of Members’ interests within the required time limit.

A spokesperson for Hunt said it was an “honest administrative mistake” and that his accountant had “made an error in the Companies House filing, which was a genuine oversight.”

“With respect to ministerial and parliamentary declarations, the Cabinet Office are clear that there has been no breach of the ministerial code,” the spokesperson added.

The Guardian also revealed that Hunt was able to buy seven luxury flats through the property firm with the help of a bulk discount from property developer and Conservative donor Nicholas James Roach.

Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman for the Committee on Standards in Public Life, told the paper: “In terms of public perception of ministerial priorities, Hunt seems more concerned with maximising his personal interests rather than ensuring that there are good public services.”

A spokesperson for Hunt said he had “paid standard market rates which would have been available to anyone else making an equivalent purchase”, and added that “the rental income from these properties will be donated to charity”.

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