Admiral Jeremy is not so admirable

Just how did we end up with this most unsuitable health secretary?

Jos Bell
10 March 2016
jeremy hunt_2.jpg

Image: Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt

As Gilbert & Sullivan intuned.....‘Oh we sail the ocean blue - and our saucy ship's a beauty’.

The position from the NHS Poop Deck is that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is in danger of turning our NHS into a sinking ship on a tide of Tory blue. 

Hunt is now by far the most unpopular British politician, according to a recent poll – beating off strong opposition from Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne. He even beat Donald Trump for badness in one vote with a rather more international flavour.

The most obvious reason is his attack on the nation’s favourite profession, our Junior Doctors. This week sees the doctors forced into another round of strikes – the first walk-outs in 40 years. But there’s also Hunt’s failure to address the A&E crisis; pretending to support patient safety whilst hiding data to protect himself rather than patients; the withdrawal of the nursing bursary despite a national nurse shortage totalling more than 18,000; allowing the sale of multiple-billions-worth of the NHS to the private sector

No wonder Hunt is the worst minister for ducking parliamentary scrutiny, serially hiding at his desk, refusing to face crisis questions, and hoping the media don’t notice.

Now, we hear that a story OurNHS broke 2 years ago has re-surfaced in the Morning Star and in Russia Today (at 14 minutes here).

It concerns the ongoing saga of Hunt attempting to sell off the in-house NHS staffing agency, NHS Professionals, to the private sector – thus closing down one of the few ways the NHS can avoid being bled dry by the private staffing agencies. In another ideological steal, ever contrary to economic logic, he wants to flog it, even though last year it brought the national purse a revenue of £341m and a profit of £8mn. Hunt has hired Deloitte to help with the sell-off – which will doubtless hike up the private agency bill of several billions which already hangs, albatross-like, round the NHS’s neck. 

After making several calls to the Dept of Health, they will say only:

‘Our work with Deloitte is ongoing and no final decisions have been made. We are examining all options to finding the best solution to NHS Professionals.’

Quite how much this mysterious contract is costing us they will not say. Quite when the decision is to be made they will not say. They will also not say whether tenders are already being worked up, much less which firms are involved with this process.

But RT and the Morning Star report that former health secretary Virginia Bottomley’s Odgers Recruitment is one of those firms that could stand to benefit.

Even the radar of RT and the Morning Star missed the intriguing possibility of a Hunt family connection, here, though – and one that becomes interesting to review, as junior doctors prepare to take to the streets again, and people look at the Hunt trajectory and ask again, just how did he (and we) come to be in this position?

Is it through sheer hard work?

After all, the current overseer of the NHS workforce famously said that cutting tax credits would make the British workforce “prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard”.

But it doesn’t really seem to be about hard work. After all, Hunt has in many ways fewer responsibilities than any health minister before him – now that the 2012 Health & Social Care Act has relieved him of many of his duties around ensuring a comprehensive, functioning healthcare system, and allowing him to blame most problems on hapless quangocrats and local NHS managers.

As we’ve seen – he won’t turn up in parliament to account for his actions. And he’s not keen on meeting the concerned public, either. He agreed to meet me and a few friendly colleagues once – but instead, ‘bravely’ hot-footed out of the back door after circling the block for 50 minutes in a blacked out car in the hope that we would go away. Similarly, he sent down his diary secretary to meet the Lewisham Buggy Army mums who were serenading him on that frozen Valentine’s Day visit in 2013 ....”Where are you Jeremy ? Our babies are freezing cold!”

Of course despite the game of Hunt the Hunt, the government still calls the shots when it suits them. But mostly, Jeremy clings to his desk (at least he’s stopped hiding behind trees) and refuses to account for his destructive actions which show our once internationally top performing NHS in freefall, facing the “worst financial crisis in a generation”.

So if hard work isn’t the secret of Hunt’s success, what is?

The former head boy did gain a PPE First from Magdalen College Oxford, where he is a contemporary of Cameron & Boris, so to be fair, he is presumably a tad brighter than Third Class Osborne.

But this is also a man with a raft of family contacts which belie his rabbit in the headlights demeanour – and which have hitherto protected him from being run over.

In fact, a whole pirate stash canteen of silver spoons also seems to have come his way.

Hunt likes to suggest he understands the NHS because his father was an NHS manager. He “learned to value the NHS at his father’s knee”, he told the Guardian recently. In fact, Sir Nicholas John Streynsham Hunt was Admiral of the Fleet in his main career and also served time as private secretary to a member of the Royal Family.

Once retired, Admiral Hunt saw a path from quangoland to the private health sector. He was Chairman of the South West Surrey District Health Authority from 1990 to 1995 and then Chairman of Nuffield Hospitals from 1996 to 2001.

Hunt also has another interesting relative – a cousin by marriage. Admiral Sir John had an elder brother, Roland Colin Charles Hunt, who married Hilda Pauline Garnett, sister of one W. John Garnett. WJG had a daughter called Virginia Hilda Brunette Maxwell Garnett – the maiden name of Virginia Bottomley. 

(This family also beats Cameron to the royal tree – they enjoy a 4th cousin to the Queen status, whilst he is a mere 5th.) 

Virginia – now Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone ( on the Isle of Wight) was of course MP for South West Surrey and a Secretary of State for Health during the Major government before being uplifted to the Lords, becoming a director of Bupa between 2007 – 13, and now chairing the Odgers Berndtson Board & CEO headhunting practice that has already made a packet from the 2012 Health Act’s restructuring she voted for, whatever happens with the latest sell-off of NHS Professionals.

Once Bottomley had vacated her seat, there was an obvious successor....

Step forward, Cousin Jeremy – first as Bottomley’s successor in the SW Surrey seat, then following in her footsteps as Health Secretary – possibly the man least suited to the role since the Doomsday Book. 

Ultimately, though even family connections wouldn’t protect Hunt from being sacked for this long (if he lasts another two months, he’ll become the longest serving health secretary on record) – unless he was doing exactly what Cameron and Osborne wanted – and probably more.

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