Jeremy Hunt is the Member of Parliament for South West Surrey and Secretary of State for Health. Follow Jeremy on Twitter.
Sometimes an opposition makes a transition from opposition for opposition's
sake to being a government-in-waiting. That is the moment of maximum danger for
a government seeking re-election. However, Labour's reaction to my decision on
Lewisham hospital last week shows they are going headlong in the opposite
A simple look at the facts would tell you this was a problem over which they should
have shown some humility.
South London Healthcare Trust was set up under the last Government to solve
long-standing financial problems. Instead, they left it with a deficit of around
£65m per annum - more than £1m every week being drained from frontline
services to support a deficit. Two PFIs signed by Labour between them account
for around £60m of cost every year in the Trust.
The solution I proposed did not involve the closure of Lewisham A & E,
although that was on the table. But it does remove the deficit, meaning that
money can go back into frontline patient care. It also saves around 100 lives a
year by concentrating the care for a few more complex conditions – pneumonia,
meningitis, broken hips – in specialist hospitals nearby. This was what Labour
did with stroke care, reducing the number of London hospitals dealing with
strokes from 32 to 8 and halving the stroke mortality rate in the process.
You would not expect local MPs most directly affected to be able to support
controversial service changes at their local hospital (although Phillip Lee in
Bracknell is an honourable exception). But a serious opposition would at least
acknowledge the difficulties and indeed its responsibility for the problem.
Instead, what did we hear from Andy Burnham?
He said the decision had been "cobbled together…in a matter of
days." In fact the process started last July and strictly followed a
timetable and procedure that Labour put on the statute book in 2009.
He positioned himself as against any A & E closure in the country – even
though Labour closed or downgraded 12 when in office, nearly one a year, and he
acknowledged in 2010 that "Improving the quality, safety and overall
patient experience means accepting that services will need to change in this
He criticised changing the maternity unit to being midwife-led – even though
Labour did as much in 9 hospitals when in office.
Then the man who opposed our increases in the NHS budget – and still wants to cut
it from its current levels (as he confirmed just before Christmas)
said this was an example of "the moneymen and not the medics…calling the
All without a single suggestion as to what Labour would have done. Nowhere.
Playing to the gallery may make you feel good on a march in Lewisham, but if
this is the quality of Labour's opposition, the NHS is not safe in their hands.
And it will fall to this government to continue making the difficult decisions
necessary to ensure higher levels of care and treatment despite the challenges
of an ageing population and constrained finances.