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Jeremy Hunt: ‘There is a lot of trust we have to regain’

Johnson’s most outspoken rival on why the NHS wasn’t prepared for Covid—and how it can recover
June 16, 2022

Though he may have scraped through a confidence vote, the prime minister’s days look numbered. If he falls from office, one man who will almost certainly be in the running to take his place is Jeremy Hunt. The former health and foreign secretary tried for the leadership in 2019 and has been seen ever since as a potential sensible successor to the chaotic incumbent. Few were surprised when he publicly turned on his leader in early June. 

“There is a lot of trust that we have to regain,” says Hunt as we speak in the weeks leading up to that vote. “It would be completely wrong for Conservatives to say that the drubbing we got in the local elections was just midterm blues.”

How much damage has Partygate done? “I don’t want to minimise the anger,” he says. Though he stresses that voters care most about wider social and economic issues, he believes the scandal was “one of the reasons that my party took a pasting” in May. 

“And you know, my wife’s father died during the first wave, and there were only 15 people at his funeral, because that was the rule.” 

Hunt burnished his reputation during the pandemic, when he made powerful interventions in his capacity as chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee. He has just published a new book, Zero, about how to eliminate preventable deaths in the NHS. 

We “absolutely have to deal with the backlog” of delayed care, Hunt tells me. “We’ve got 6.4m people” waiting for treatment. That pressure means Hunt is “really worried that we’re going to have another Mid Staffs”—a reference to the notoriously appalling care given at Stafford hospital in the first decade of this century. “It’s uncannily similar to the early 2000s,” he warns, “and I really don’t want us to make the same mistake again… if you try and deal with a backlog just by introducing endless targets, you turn patients into numbers, and that’s a very dangerous step.” Hunt has raised this concern with the current health secretary, Sajid Javid, “many times.”

The whole NHS had to be repurposed to tackle Covid. When Hunt was in office the country ran pandemic preparedness exercises, most famously the “Cygnus” exercise of 2016. What did they get wrong? “What we thought was that if we have a pandemic, the most likely thing is that it’s the same type of pandemic that we had last time… so you can look at the report of Exercise Cygnus and the word ‘testing’ is not mentioned once, but that’s because testing isn’t really a central part of your flu response… you don’t have that long period of asymptomatic transmission.” The point is that it’s crucial to “prepare just as hard for viruses that happen in Taiwan, Korea, China as you do for viruses that have happened closer to home.”

Will the official Covid inquiry be scathing? “I don’t know,” he says. Hunt’s own committee’s “Lessons Learnt” inquiry, conducted jointly with the Science and Technology Committee, was highly critical of aspects of the government’s response. 

Downing Street might have got a grip sooner if its staff had spent less time in social gatherings. Hunt’s seen controversies of his own: most ­famously he alienated junior doctors during a bitter and long-running contract dispute. Nonetheless, he has a constituency in the party. If the Partygate scandal capsizes this administration, he will be waiting in the wings.