Conservative conference: Jeremy Hunt puts NHS focus on elderly

Jeremy Hunt: "Our biggest priority must be... to meet the challenges of an aging population"

NHS staff must become the "best in the world" at looking after the elderly, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has told the Conservative Party conference.

In his first major speech since taking on the role in the recent reshuffle, he said it was time to change the culture of the organisation.

Mr Hunt attacked Labour, saying no party had a "monopoly on compassion".

He also praised doctors and nurses as "unsung heroes", but added that the NHS should be "honest about failure".

Mr Hunt, who said his father had worked as an NHS manager and his mother as an A&E nurse and midwife, replaced Andrew Lansley in the cabinet reshuffle last month.

This followed the passing of the Health and Social Care Act, which will give GPs greater power over care budgets via clinical commissioning groups, after abolishing strategic health authorities and primary care trusts.

In his speech, Mr Hunt paid tribute to his predecessor, saying: "If Andrew is the health secretary who helped give us the structures for a modern NHS, I want to be the health secretary who helped transform the culture of the system - to make it the best in the world at looking after older people."

'Common decency'

He added: "Since it was set up in 1948 the NHS has come to symbolise a deeply held belief about what it means to be British: a country fit for heroes where everyone should have a roof over their heads, a school for their children and proper treatment for their family when they're sick.

Analysis

The speech was short. In fact, it was barely 20 minutes long, which is a sharp contrast with the lengthy, policy-heavy speeches made regularly by his predecessor Andrew Lansley.

That in itself is telling about what sort of secretary of state Mr Hunt is likely to be. It is clear Mr Hunt has been brought in to establish a clear and concise message about the government's position on the NHS.

Again and again he talked about improving patient care. His speech was peppered with references to the issue. He mentioned past scandals, such as Mid Staffordshire and Winterbourne View. He talked about making managers accountable for care as well as finances.

He also recognised the wider challenge the NHS faces from an ageing population and the need for better solutions to dementia and social care.

Beyond that there was little detail about how he plans to proceed. But after a health secretary that went after the structure of the NHS, Mr Hunt has his eyes firmly set on its culture.

"That was under the Attlee government. But the NHS does not belong to Labour any more than victory in the second world war belongs to the Conservatives. No party has a monopoly on compassion and it is an insult to common decency for any party to claim it."

Ministers are looking at introducing a cap on the amount for which people are liable when funding their care in old age.

Mr Hunt said: "Last month I visited St Thomas', the hospital where I was born. I met a nurse who had been caring for a dying man who had lost touch with his family 20 years earlier. She searched out the family on Google, found them in Ireland, arranged to fly him back there so he was able to spend his last two weeks reunited with his family.

"So much of the NHS is like that. Unsung heroes who represent the very best of our values.

"But as we celebrate excellence, we must be honest about failure. I'm going to name names now because I don't want anything to be swept under the carpet.

"The shocking failures of care at Mid Staffs where a patient with C-diff was left to lie naked in their own excrement.

"The bullying of a man with Parkinsons at East Surrey hospital. The kicking of disabled residents at Winterbourne View care home. The slapping of an older woman with dementia at Ash Court care home."

Mr Hunt added: "Last month the Royal College of Physicians published a report about the way older people are looked after in our hospitals. It said 'the system continues to treat older patients as a surprise, at best, or unwelcome at worst'. Strong words.

"We have many committed managers in hospitals and care homes. But I need to say this to all managers: you will be held responsible for the care in your establishments. You wouldn't expect to keep your job if you lost control of your finances. Well don't expect to keep it if you lose control of your care."

The conference continues until Wednesday.

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