Steve Barclay

Steve ‘Backley’: Sunak reinstates Cambridgeshire MP as health secretary

Steve Barclay is reprising his position as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, as new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak finalises his cabinet after his victory in the Conservative leadership contest.

As he will well know, Barclay’s reappointment comes at a delicate point for the NHS and the wider health sector – backlog continues to cripple key services, staff continue to threaten industrial action over pay, and vacancies continue to leave a gaping hole across the entire industry.

Upon the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s appointment, health leaders have been swift to set out what the incoming health secretary’s priorities should be.

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor responded to Barclay’s appointment by saying: ”Mr Barclay is no stranger to the many challenges facing the NHS but in the short time that he has been away, these issues have intensified significantly. There are now over 132,000 vacancies across the NHS, the waiting list for elective treatment stands at over 7 million people in England, and emergency care services are running incredibly hot all of which mean patients are not getting the care they need in a timely manner.

“Winter looks set to the toughest yet and Mr Barclay will be the health secretary who will be steering the ship on behalf of the largest employer in the country. How he oversees the restructure of NHS England, which will include how this can support the 42 integrated care systems to deliver for their local communities, as well as manage the increasing likelihood of industrial action from the frontline could be his defining moment in the role and so, we encourage him to engage constructively in these conversations.

“When Mr Barclay was last in charge, he called for a reduction in the overall number of performance targets across the health service and pushed for local health leaders to be allowed to lead and shape the care even more for the communities they serve. With finances stretched even more given rising inflation and cost of living pressures, this will be more important than ever as we need to be realistic about what the NHS can deliver with the staff and resources made available.

“As the government no doubt intends to identify where further savings can be made, Mr Barclay would do well to remember that he is taking on one of the most efficient healthcare systems in the world where management costs are considerably lower than in Western counterparts. These managers make a vital contribution to the safe and efficient running of patient services and so, to scale this back would be at best a false economy and at worse, it will damage the NHS further.”

Also responding to the announcement of the new health secretary, NHS Providers’ interim chief executive, Saffron Cordery, said: “Top of Barclay's priorities must be tackling severe workforce shortages with a long-term, fully costed and funded national plan to secure for the NHS the staff it desperately needs. Without it, existing staff will continue to work under immense pressure, waiting lists will get longer and patient care will suffer.

"And with another major government economic announcement just days away, ministers must address serious issues including the effects of the soaring cost of living on NHS workers and sky-high inflation eating into already stretched NHS budgets. There is also the cost to the NHS of the government's decision not to fully fund staff pay awards, and the damaging delays to the New Hospitals Programme and capital funding to improve safety for patients and staff.

"We urge the prime minister, chancellor and health and social care secretary to work together closely and with trust leaders to help the NHS cope with what threatens to be its toughest ever winter and to give patients first-class care."

Incidentally, the new cabinet configuration has also seen outgoing health secretary Therese Coffey take the lateral step into a different governmental department, becoming the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Between Coffey’s and Barclay’s previous reign presiding over the NHS, the average lifespan of a health secretary recently has been no more than around eight-and-a-half weeks. It is surely hoped then that Rishi Sunak’s premiership provides some much needed stability for the country as a whole, but especially the health sector and the NHS, as it prepares for what could be the most challenging winter since records began.

National Health Executive, Nov/Dec, Cover

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