27 June 2021

Weekly briefing: What’s in Javid’s in-tray?


Such is the velocity of news these days, most of what there is to be said about Matt Hancock’s departure has been said. It wasn’t the affair, but the ‘one rule for us, one for them’ that did for him – that and the fact he hadn’t banked the political capital for any colleagues to really stick their neck out for him. Still, for all the pelters aimed at him in recent days, Hancock can at least take some satisfaction at the NHS vaccine rollout, and his own conviction from the off that an effective vaccine was on the way, at a time when that was not necessarily the prevailing view across Whitehall.

His replacement, Sajid Javid, takes on an inherently daunting job at one of the most challenging times in the NHS’s history. He may not have to deal with the brunt of the pandemic, but nor is it by any means over, even with that heroic vaccine rollout. Given that he’s headed up the Home Office, the Treasury, Business, Communities and Culture, Javid certainly isn’t lacking in experience of tough jobs.

And there’s no overstating the task ahead of him. The health service will be dealing with the aftershocks of the Covid earthquake for a very long time indeed, thanks to the enormous backlog of patients and operations brought on by the pandemic. As well as over 5 million people on waiting lists, some estimates suggest another 7 million have yet to come forward.

Treating them will be a workforce that has performed heroics over the last year but which is, frankly, knackered. Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who now chairs the Health Select Committee, has said that burnout in both health and social care represents “an extraordinarily dangerous risk to the proper functioning of both services”. The exhaustion of some staff is partly due to a problem that predates the pandemic – the many thousands of unfilled posts in both sectors.

What Mr Javid does about the Health and Social Care Bill is another poser. Reports suggest Number 10 was not particularly happy with Mr Hancock’s handling of the legislation, so a new Secretary of State offers a chance to either make some changes or hit the brakes altogether. It’s not as though the in-tray isn’t full enough as it is.

Bear in mind too that this is all happening just as the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, prepares to step down. In a week when university relationships have come to the fore, perhaps Boris Johnson can ask Stevens, his old Balliol contemporary, to soldier on a little longer as the new Secretary of State beds in.

It’s not all about the NHS, of course. There’s also the perennial unsolved problem of social care, the subject of endless reviews and aborted cross-party talks, with the square root of sod-all to show for them. On the plus side, though he may be new to Health, Javid has some experience in this particular area from his time at Communities Secretary, where social care was a big part of his remit.

Beyond the outstanding policy questions, what will the political fall-out of Hancock’s departure be? Could it affect the upcoming by-election in Batley and Spen?

In the short term, probably not much, given that Hancock has gone pretty swiftly and Labour remain terminally unelectable. Most people’s biggest concern wlll be whether the new man will let them go on their summer holidays. In the longer term, however, these kind of stories risk creating a lasting impression of sleaze and chaos – one that could seriously undermine the Government.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.