Photo: We ♥ the NHS! from Scorpions and Centaurs Flickr Photostream

As far back as the ‘National Listening Exercise’ in April 2011 it was fairly obvious that the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, was a dead man walking. This became reality last week when Lansley was replaced by Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State for Health. Hunts’ appointment was met with an almost universally incredulous cry of “Hunt?” However, there is more continuity in this appointment than may first appear.

Whilst serving as Secretary of State for Culture, Hunt found the time, in his busy schedule of meetings, to make representations on behalf of Virgin Care in relation to their £650 million bid to take over hospital services in his own constituency in Surrey. Apparently he had concerns that the deal was not proceeding quickly enough. In all his cabinet posts Hunt has maintained corporate links (e.g. News International and Virgin Care) that suggest, at the very least, potential conflict of interests. He might of course argue that the News International and Virgin Care deals were in the country’s best interest, rather than against it. For example, in 2005 he co-authored a book which argued that the provision of a national system of publicly funded health care was not in the country’s best interests.  The co-authors’ stated preference was for a system of denationalised provision where patients are funded “by way of universal insurance, to purchase health care from the provider of their choice.” (p.78). They continued that the “poor and unemployed would have their contributions supplemented or paid for by the state”. His animosity to the very idea of the NHS is even reported to have extended to being opposed to the tribute featured during the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

In trying to make sense of Hunt’s appointment, we need to look at the continuities across Lansley and Hunt, rather than his previous portfolios, misdeeds and mishaps. Taking this line, we could argue that Hunt’s appointment represents an extension to the erosion of the NHS as a public service and an acceleration towards fully privatised health care. Lansley opened the Pandora’s Box of private provision and Hunt constitutes the reaffirmation of this principle; there must be a worry that he will be all too willing to ruthlessly exploit the possibilities presented by his predecessors ‘reforms’. He has already demonstrated an eagerness to work closely with the private sector.

In his previous Cabinet role as Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media & Sport, many commentators felt Hunt was lucky to stay in office given allegations against him of making representations on behalf of News International (The Guardian newspaper referred to him as the ‘Minister for Murdoch’). Interestingly, Vince Cable was previously dismissed from his governmental role in the News International affair for demonstrating bias against one of the bidders. Conversely, Hunt was not dismissed for a similar bias in support of one of the bidders.

Perhaps there is a faint glimmer of hope as it could be argued that Hunt’s track record is far from prolific when it comes to favouring private enterprise.  His closeness to Murdoch, and the scandal surrounding his special advisor Adam Smith, actively worked against the proposed takeover of BskyB.  And Hunt’s defence of the security giant G4S did little to prevent the fiasco surrounding their failure to adequately cover the London Olympics becoming a humiliating shambles. Indeed it should be noted that arrangements to ensure the safety of the games was only saved by bringing in public service workers.

But in terms of the NHS the corporate links are already clearly in evidence. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a report that of the initial fifty-two pathfinder GP consortia, there were concerns about the independence of nineteen of their boards. They found that one in seven board members of first-wave consortia had links to private companies, including Virgin Care. ‘Privatisation’ is a dirty word in the public psyche when it comes to the NHS. The appointment of Hunt represents a continuation of Lansley’s ideological opposition to public provision, and an extension of the political tactic of privatisation by stealth. There will be a continuation of calls for efficiency savings and deregulated provision as the best means of improving the care of patients and ensuring financial rectitude in the interests of the great British public, despite plenty of good evidence that privatised health care is significantly less efficient than that provided by public service.

Unmasking that these ‘reforms’ and this agenda are not in the interests of a free, universal, national healthcare system is the task facing supporters of a publicly funded National Health Service. We wonder if Nick Davies or Alan Rusbridger fancy adding an interest in health to their journalistic portfolios.