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Hunt says Hawking is 'wrong' over NHS

Health secretary refutes privatisation allegations and says weekend care must be improved

Mark Gould

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has used a column in The Observer to continue the war of words over the NHS with scientist Stephen Hawking.

In the piece, Mr Hunt wrote that Hawking “is once again wrong in his characterisation of government policy towards the NHS”.

On Saturday, after a week of angry exchanges, Prof Hawking wrote in The Guardian: “Hunt’s statement that funding and the number of doctors and nurses are at an all-time high is a distraction. Record funding is not the same thing as adequate funding. There is overwhelming evidence that NHS funding and the numbers of doctors and nurses are inadequate, and it is getting worse.”

He accused Hunt of cherry-picking and misrepresenting research. “As a patient who has spent a lot of time in hospital, I would welcome improved services at the weekend. For this, we need a scientific assessment of the benefits of a seven-day service and of the resources required, not misrepresentation of research.”

Hunt responded on Sunday by repeating his insistence that hospital care was significantly worse at weekends. "I do not accept his comments about the misuse of statistics, although inevitably in the heat of an industrial relations dispute there will be many such accusations hurled from both sides. To decide that one piece of research is the most credible is not “cherry-picking”, as Hawking suggested – it is doing what you have to do when researchers disagree.

"But regardless of which research you back, none of us can bury our heads in the sand on the issues surrounding weekend care in hospitals. Most doctors in their hearts would rather a loved one was admitted mid-week than at the weekend. Let’s remember that the drive towards better standards of care across the week came not from politicians but from clinicians, led by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. To ignore their findings would be a betrayal of duty by a health secretary. Government policy is simply to make sure that four clinical seven-day standards, set by the Royal Colleges and ensuring patient access to consultants and diagnostic tests, are properly met."

Prof Hawking had again stated that the direction of health policy was towards “a US-style insurance system run by private companies”. Mr Hunt insisted Hawking was incorrect, adding: “The NHS … will remain a single-payer, taxpayer-funded system free at the point of use – and should do forever as far as I’m concerned.”

In a tweet, earlier in the week, Hunt had accused Hawking of spreading falsehoods. “Most pernicious falsehood from Stephen Hawking is idea govt wants US-style insurance system. Is it too much to ask him to look at evidence?”

Mr Hunt said such systems – "which he seems to now concede are not government policy – rely on individuals, and not the state, paying for their healthcare. If that was the direction of travel, the state would be spending less, not more, on the NHS".

"Likewise, more individuals would be taking out private medical insurance – again, the opposite is the case. Although there was indeed a small rise last year, overall there has been a dramatic drop in private medical insurance since 2009."

The controversy began a week ago, when Hawking, one of the most revered and admired scientists in the world, gave a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine in which he said: “The crisis in the NHS has been caused by political decisions.”

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