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All change (again): who is the new health secretary?

As the NHS faces the biggest crisis in its history, we have seen three health secretaries swing through the doors of the Department of Health and Social Care this year promising to put things right. Who is Thérèse Coffey and what can we expect from our latest Secretary of State for Health?

As the NHS faces the biggest crisis in its history, three health secretaries have swung through the doors of the Department of Health and Social Care this year promising to put things right.

Thérèse Coffey, former work and pensions secretary, is the latest and takes over from Stephen Barclay who has only been in the role for two months.

A long-time friend of new prime minister Liz Truss, Dr Coffey has also been appointed deputy prime minister. A big job for challenging times. Yet having gone a multitude secretaries over the past five years, health leaders hope this will signal a period of stability as they roll towards winter.

So, who is Thérèse Coffey and what can we expect from our latest Secretary of State for Health?

Who is Thérèse Coffey?

Thérèse Coffey was born in Lancashire and grew up in Liverpool. She graduated from University College London (UCL) with a PhD in chemistry. A former chartered management accountant and finance director for Mars, she was elected the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal in May 2010.

During her time in office, she has held posts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and has been Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) since September 2019.

Her time at the DWP often saw her clash with disability campaigners. Most recently when she told a Commons work and pensions committee that that the DWP did not have a statutory duty of care to the people relying on the benefits system. Instead, she said, that duty should be left to “the local councils, the social services, the doctors and other people”.

Just weeks ago she was also accused of deliberately attempting to hide the impact of the government’s wide-ranging welfare reforms by concealing a range of official reports on benefits.

Yet, during the pandemic when Rishi Sunak ended the £20 Universal Credit uplift she did try to fight for it to stay.

Her views on abortion have also come under the spotlight today (Wednesday) after The British Pregnancy Advisory Service said her record on abortion rights (she has previously voted against extending access to abortion care) was “deeply concerning”.

Her government biography lists that she enjoys watching football, gardening and music, especially Muse. She is also a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) member.

What issues will she need to fix urgently in the NHS?

The British Medical Association (BMA) believe that pay, pensions and workforce losses should be top of the list. This is because every day that the government delays in acting to restore pay levels in the NHS and sorting out broken pension rules will see morale continue to fall and drive more doctors out of the NHS.

Professor Philip Banfield, BMA council chair, said: “As of June 2022, more than 130,000 posts in secondary care in England were vacant – the largest number of unfilled vacancies since June 2018. And since September 2015, we now have the equivalent of 1,857 fewer fully qualified full-time GPs compared to September 2015, when the current collection method began.

“The new Health Secretary must not only put together a credible plan to retain doctors, including by addressing pay and pensions, but also urgently recruit more staff.”

He added that waiting lists have hit record numbers, ambulances are stacking up and unable to have sick patients admitted, and GPs are drowning in red tape and debilitating workloads

The Royal College of GPs echoed this and said work needs to be done to keep highly-trained, experienced doctors in the profession, not tied up in red tape but delivering patient care.

It said that general practice is the bedrock of the NHS as it carries out the vast majority of patient contacts and in doing so alleviates pressures across the NHS, including in A&E. But it is a service in crisis and in desperate need of support.

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, added: “Recent reports have shown that patient satisfaction in the NHS, notably in general practice, is falling, largely down to access. This is not through lack of trying on the part of GPs and our teams. We are carrying out more consultations every month than before the pandemic and the care we are delivering is becoming more complex, but numbers of fully qualified, full-time GPs are falling.

“The results of our own member survey show just how stark the situation is within the profession, with respondents reporting concern about their ability to deliver safe care because they don’t have enough time with their patients, and 42% saying they are likely to quit the profession within five years.

“The new Health Secretary will want to turn this around and first and foremost, she needs to address workforce. We need to ensure we’re training enough doctors for the future.”

Shifting NHS funds to social care

Professor Philip Banfield from the BMA also he was concerned that Dr Coffey would try to put much-needed resources into social care by cutting NHS budgets. Something that would serve to make the crisis affecting the frontline NHS services far worse.

It would be a huge mistake to seek to make up for the cancellation of the Health and Social Care levy by cutting the NHS, he said.

“The health service went into the pandemic on the back foot, and now, with pressures left to worsen, staff are being put in the impossible situation of deciding who gets care and who doesn’t. What’s more, since April 2022, there have been 22,500 more deaths than expected in the UK  – one of the reasons for which might be because, due to soaring waiting times in the NHS, people were reluctant to get the care they needed.

“Dr Coffey takes office at a time of greater crisis in the NHS than any of her predecessors.”

Cost of living crisis and healthcare

The NHS Confederation said all these concerns are made significantly more worrying by the cost-of-living crisis and so, like the rest of the country they are eager to understand the detail of the government’s promised intervention this week.

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said: “GP appointments, cancer treatments, and diagnostic tests are all above pre-pandemic levels, and patients who had waited the longest for an elective procedure have now received one. However, demand for frontline care is through the roof, waiting time standards are deteriorating despite the heroic efforts of its staff, and winter seems set to be the busiest on record.

“Immediate support is needed for the NHS but with over 130,000 vacancies and a real-terms funding cut that could stretch to £9.4bn this year, there is no quick or easy way out of these deep-rooted problems.

“We will not have an NHS that is fit for the future without investment in capital, in its workforce, and in our broken social care system. There is no time to delay.”

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