As you know, Mr Speaker, I am always happy to come to the House to discuss the NHS, but today we have been brought here to discuss a local operational issue that, regrettably, the Opposition have tried to spin as part of their policy to “weaponise the NHS.”
As I said to the House earlier this month, a major incident is part of the established escalation process for the NHS, and has been since 2005. It enables trusts to deal with significant demands, putting in place a command and control structure to allow them to bring in additional staff and increase capacity. It is a temporary measure taken to ensure that the most urgent and serious cases get the safe, high-quality care they need.
The decision to declare a major incident is taken locally, and there is no national definition. We must trust the managers and clinicians in our local NHS to make these decisions and support them in doing so by ensuring that there is sufficient financial support available to help them to deal with additional pressures. The document that has been questioned this morning by the Opposition Health spokesman was issued by the local NHS in the west midlands. That was done to help its clinical commissioning groups to work with local NHS organisations to deal with the unprecedented pressures they have been facing this winter. The chief operating officer of NHS England, Dame Barbara Hakin, has said this morning that this was a local decision and neither the responsibility of Ministers nor the result of pressure by Ministers.
Let me finish by praising the NHS for coping well with the unprecedented pressures. Performance against the A and E standard improved to 92.4% last week, which is testament to hard-working staff, and this Government will support them, not try to turn their efforts into a political football.
In the first week of January, at least 14 trusts across England declared major incidents, including three in the west midlands. Official figures show that pressure continued into the second and third weeks of January, with only seven A and Es out of 140 meeting the Government’s target. There were ambulance diverts, and even an A and E closure, but no further major incidents were declared. On
“The decision to declare a major incident is taken locally—there is no national definition”—[Hansard, 7 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 273.]
He has just repeated that now, and called this a “local operational issue”, but that does not appear to be entirely accurate. Let me quote from the guidance that was sent in the middle of January. It is headed “NHS England” and it states:
“Major incidents should be agreed with…the Director on call for NHS England”.
Will the Secretary of State now withdraw his earlier statement to the House and confirm that this decision is not purely local, in that it has to be approved by NHS England?
Let me turn to the impact that this has had on trusts. There are 17 enhanced criteria set out, including requirements that may cause serious time delays for trusts in an emergency. For instance, there is a requirement on the on-call CCG manager to visit the trust and undertake a review. Let me tell the Secretary of State how those new rules were perceived by senior managers. I shall quote from an e-mail sent by the head of operations at one trust, who said that the requirement had been
“introduced by NHS England to effectively stop trusts from calling a major incident…Our hands will be tied in most cases if they wish to call a major incident for capacity reasons”.
Is the Secretary of State confident that the new enhanced criteria are not unduly burdensome and will not cause unnecessary delays for a trust in an emergency situation? Is he satisfied that this guidance is consistent with good practice at national level and safe to be left in place?
The Secretary of State has used the word “local” many times today, and spoken of the only consideration being relieving pressure on hospitals facing severe demand. However, his claim that this matter is purely local is called into serious question right now by this 86-page document headed “NHS England”—[Interruption.] He says it is from the local team, but this is a regional function of the national body, NHS England. The local claim will not wash, I am afraid.
I will tell the Secretary of State what the guidance tells trusts to take into account. He says that it concerns only operational matters, but section 7.2.3 is headed “Politics”, and subsection (a) asks:
“Is there increasing involvement of senior command and control tiers, political involvement or excessive media coverage?”
Subsection (c) asks:
“Is there a risk of reputational damage?”
Does not this muddy the waters hugely? Will it not distract doctors whose sole focus should be on the emergency situation, and not on media and political considerations that should form no part of their judgment? If the Secretary of State agrees with me on that, will he today instruct NHS England to withdraw this guidance and issue more appropriate instructions to the NHS in the region? The NHS remains under serious pressure, and it needs the clearest of instructions based on what is best for patients. Will he act today, so as to leave the NHS in no doubt that that must be its paramount and only concern at all times?
In the right hon. Gentleman’s desperate desire to weaponise the NHS, I am afraid that Labour has sunk to new depths today. He said in the media this morning that the Government had put news management over patient safety. That is ironic coming from him, given that so many officials testified to Francis about the pressure they were put under not to come out with bad news when he was Health Secretary. Even the head of the Care Quality Commission was roasted because she wanted to publish details of the problems that were happening in the NHS under Labour and he did not want that to happen when he was Health Secretary. That news management stopped the moment he walked out the door, and those days are over.
As confirmed by NHS England this morning, this was an operational decision; it was nothing to do with Ministers. This was the local NHS doing its best to get good guidelines out in a tough winter. [Interruption.] It is a local decision. The right hon. Gentleman is the man who talks—he did not deliver this in office—a lot about integration. It is absolutely right that a local hospital should talk to the rest of the local NHS to check about the impact of any decision it makes on major incidents, to make sure that patients are treated safely—is he now saying to this House that local hospitals should not talk to the rest of the NHS? That is what these guidelines say. This was a period when we had 16 major incidents, but that number has gone right down because performance on accident and emergency is significantly—[Interruption.] This is the underlying point, because the reason we have fewer major incidents is that A and E performance has got better. This is the week when we discovered that public satisfaction with the NHS jumped five points last year. This is the week when NHS unions have put patients first by suspending their strike, and Labour focuses not on patients, but on politics. On patients, he did not want to talk about the Welsh ambulance service publishing its worst ever figures, although the Labour leader says that we should be looking at what is going on in Wales.
Let us be clear: where Labour runs the NHS we have double the number of people waiting at A and E; double the number of people waiting too long for ambulances; and 10 times the number of people waiting for their operations. We have seen Labour today in Wales and Labour before covering up around Mid Staffs, ignoring patients and weaponising the NHS for political advantage—has the right hon. Gentleman not proved today that Labour is still not fit to run the NHS?
Our hard-working NHS staff and, more importantly, patients need to have absolute confidence that the Secretary of State will never lean on operational decision making in these circumstances and will always allow that decision making to take place at the appropriate local level, backed, if necessary, by national guidance.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that. It is why many people in the NHS will be so astonished to hear the shadow Secretary of State, who presided over a culture where precisely that kind of leaning from on high happened, making it difficult for people to make those local operational decisions in the interests of patients, now trying to make a political point. This was a local decision and it was confirmed today that Ministers had no involvement in it, and Labour should stop trying to score political points.
This Government caused confusion about decision making and accountability because of their reckless and expensive restructuring of the NHS. Now, to achieve what the Secretary of State wants to achieve, he has to resort to the sorts of measures we are discussing. We have had two major incidents declared in local hospitals in Salford in one week recently, and I have great concerns that this sort of guidance means that it is harder for clinicians to take the steps necessary to resolve the A and E crisis. They should not have to think about the issues listed in this document: politics and whether there is a risk of reputational damage. I do not want Salford Royal hospital and the Royal Bolton hospital thinking, “We can’t do this because of reputational damage.” This should be done entirely on the basis of clinicians’ reasoning.
That advice was issued in the west midlands, and not in Salford. The hon. Lady talked about the reorganisation. Well, that reorganisation means that we have been able to afford 82 more hospital doctors and 589 more nurses in her area, which is helping her constituents. Salford is one of the best examples of integrated care in the country, which is why any hospital declaring a major incident should think about the impact on the rest of the NHS locally. That is what the guidance says.
The shadow Secretary of State is a very honourable gentleman, but he might live to regret this political football stuff. In north Northamptonshire, my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone, Andy Sawford and I are working together on local decisions about our A and E. Surely that, and not political football, is the way forward.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have spoken to the chief executive of Northamptonshire county council and I have heard about the excellent integration of services that is now starting to happen between the local authority and the local hospital. That is the way forward. The guidance simply says that trusts must pay attention to the impact on the local health economy before they make a local decision. It is time that Labour stopped playing politics with something that they know is a disgrace.
Declaring a major incident is the decision of the local hospital trusts, and that is right. But it is important that, before they make that decision, they should take proper account of the impact on the rest of the local health economy. That is what every responsible hospital wants to happen, and that applies to the hon. Gentleman’s area as well as everywhere else.
Following the declaration of a major incident at the accident and emergency unit of Colchester hospital, we now await the Care Quality Commission report into that incident, which will be published very shortly. We want the report to tell the truth, but it is harder to tell the truth in a political atmosphere where there are people who want to gloat over these challenges to get votes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have spoken to the chief executive of the hospital, and I must say that she and her staff are doing a good job in turning around a very difficult situation. What they want is support. We have issued sensible guidance that tells hospitals that if they declare a major incident, they must take account of the impact on the rest of their local health economy. A responsible Opposition would support such guidance, and not to try to turn it into a political football.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have provided a huge amount of extra money to deal with the problems in the wake of what happened at the former Mid Staffs Trust. We are continuing to give every support we can to Walsall and Stoke and other trusts. We have more doctors and more nurses and major changes are happening. The problem in Mid Staffs went on for four long years, and we do not want to wait that time before sorting out the problems.
Clearly, patient safety must be paramount. We must ensure that any guidance supports the ambition that exists on both sides of this House for a more integrated system that takes into account the capacity across the whole service. Does the Secretary of State agree that what we also need is clarity and certainty over how the NHS and social care will be funded over the life of the next Parliament so that we realise the ambition and potential of the Care Act 2014 and we deliver Simon Stevens’s NHS plan?
I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I am sure, too, that he will agree with me that the best way to give the NHS certainty over funding in the future and the increase in funding that it needs to implement the five-year forward view is a strong economy, and it is only this Government who are able to deliver that.
According to some statistics, I have more medics per square mile in my constituency than any other MP. I also have the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust on my patch and a lot of people who work across the west midlands and in Birmingham. The Secretary of State’s operational guidance, as he has interpreted it, is not perceived in the way that he thinks it is. A and E consultants tell me that they are not just overworked and overstretched, but unsafe. If he thinks the guidance is purely operational without any political interference, will he follow the call of the shadow Secretary of State and say that he will issue a new set of guidance that makes that clear, because it is not how it is seen on the ground?
I have great respect for the hon. Lady, so I hope she will understand this: when people are worried about political influence over operational guidance, I do not then issue some political guidance. The only thing that I, as Health Secretary, say in respect of instructions going out is that patient safety must always be the priority, and that is what I have said time after time. But then the actual decision about whether to declare a major incident must be taken by people locally. Julie Moore, the chief executive of UHB, is fantastic and absolutely able to make those decisions, and those decisions should not be second-guessed by politicians.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is really important to let NHS England’s local teams—in our case the Devon and Cornwall area team—make decisions with local leaders of hospitals? So many people in the north of Cornwall live closer to Derriford in Devon than they do to Treliske in my constituency. It is only right that NHS England staff closest to the clinicians make those decisions.
That is absolutely right, but Members on the two sides of the House hold different views. We believe in devolving power locally and we want local decision-making. We accept that that might mean that sometimes services are slightly different in one part of the country compared with another, but the benefit is that we do get that local knowledge. In the past few weeks, I have spoken to South Western ambulance service, which had particular pressures over Christmas, to ask whether there is anything we can do from the centre. What I want to ensure is that the decisions that keep my hon. Friend’s constituents safe are made locally, because they are likely to be better than any that I could make in Whitehall.
The Secretary of State is very reassuring when he says that, under him, the NHS is free from political news management. If that is the case, why does he not free it from the constraints of election purdah, and allow these officials to get on with their jobs without having to second-guess the consequences of some of the decisions?
We are not in election purdah. The point is that during election purdah we will continue to publish the weekly A and E performances and other figures from the Office for National Statistics, and that has always been the system. But there is a difference between what is happening in the run-up to this election and what happened in the run-up to the previous election. This time, the CQC is free to speak up, without fear or favour, about the quality of care in every single hospital in this country, and it will continue to do so.
The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State visited the George Eliot hospital on Monday. The Leader of the Opposition praised the hospital for its progress under this Government. If we consider that, and then look at the way the Opposition come to this House and make political point scoring their No. 1 aim, we can see not only that they are hypocritical but that they want to put politics before patients.
I commend my hon. Friend for the support he gives to his local hospital. I visited it and did part of a shift in the A and E department. This was a hospital that, under the previous Government, had one of the highest mortality rates in the country. We introduced a new special measures regime and independent inspections. Labour tried to vote them down, but the result is that that hospital has come out of special measures, forged a strong new partnership with UHB and gone from strength to strength. Things are getting better because we are being honest about poor care, and did not sweep it under the carpet.
The Manor hospital in Walsall was one of the very first in the west midlands to have to declare a major incident—a level 4 incident. I visited the hospital and saw the number of people on trolleys waiting for more than four hours. I want to pay tribute to the dedicated staff at the hospital—medical and non-medical—for all that was done. But the Secretary of State should not minimise the situation that has occurred. He should recognise that it is a matter not of playing politics but of genuine concern for our constituents.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He should be reassured that because of those real pressures, which I would never seek to minimise, we put in an extra £4.5 million of funding to his local area, paying for more doctors, more nurses, more community staff and more beds. As he says, we should congratulate the staff in that hospital on their work, and also recognise that, despite those pressures, they have made real progress in improving the quality of compassionate care for the patients in that hospital. They have been very well led by the chief executive, whom I have also met.
Last week, Liz Kendall came to Harlow and attempted to weaponise the local NHS and scare local residents. A day later an interview was published in which she said that she supported privatisation in the NHS. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to help the Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow deal with major incidents is to do what the Government are doing, with £5 million extra last year for our A and E, and £4 million extra to help the NHS this year?
Indeed, across the country we have put in £700 million, which has paid for 6,400 additional beds in the system. All of that is possible because we have a strong economy and we can put extra funding into the NHS. What those people in my hon. Friend’s hospital want most of all is support from Members in all parts of the House, and not to see their efforts turned into a political football.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Calderdale and Huddersfield trust was, until 2010, one of the most successful trusts in the country? I have a letter embargoed, ironically until 1 pm today, telling me of serious financial problems—not a major incident—caused by the reforms that his Government have introduced in the NHS. I remind him that it is my job as a member of the Opposition to weaponise—to use as a weapon—the disgraceful policies that his Government have introduced that are destabilising and destroying the national health service in my town and constituency, and up and down the country. I am a member of the Opposition, I will use this as a political weapon, and I will do so until the election, which we will win.
I am afraid that the trouble is that there are just too many people on the Labour side who think exactly like that. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman go and talk to people working in Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust and ask them whether they want him to use the NHS as a political weapon in that way. They have improved their performance over the past few years and are seeing more people within four hours—every year, 4,000 more people within four hours than when Labour was in office—and MRSA cases are down. There are 79 fewer clostridium difficile cases; 525 more people are treated for cancer every year; and there are 6,200 more operations every year. Those are real improvements making a real difference to his constituents. He should celebrate them, not try to run them down.
East Surrey hospital, which is the A and E department that covers my constituency, not least because Labour closed Crawley hospital’s A and E in 2005, has not had a major incident. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that major incidents have decreased because of the extra investment that he has put into the NHS, in stark contrast to Labour-controlled Wales, which has cut the budget?
I have been to East Surrey hospital, which is a good example. It, too, has had its share of problems with care, but it has addressed them head on. Standards in the hospital are getting better, and it is encouraging to see that refreshing openness and honesty. We have put more investment into the NHS. Welsh patients are angry, because they can see that openness and transparency about results, combined with strong financial support, not cuts from central Government, lead to better service. Rather than try to create a political weapon in England, Labour should act where they can do something about it—in Wales.
I was recently told by staff in Aintree hospital on Merseyside that, in the interests of patients and patient safety, executives should have declared a major incident. Although the execs teetered on the brink, they feared the political consequences of making that decision rather than doing the right thing. What genuine help and advice can the Secretary of State give execs who face that situation on the front line and help them to do the right thing for patients?
If executives did not declare a major incident because they were worried about the political consequences, they were wrong, but I would have to be persuaded that they would do that, because every NHS executive I speak to wants to put patients first, with patient safety paramount. On the practical things that we are doing, there are 60 more doctors, and 41 more nurses since 2010, and £4.5 million to help them through this winter. We are doing a lot of practical things to help the NHS in the hon. Lady’s area through the winter.
Many major incidents have their roots in things that happened some time ago. Blackburn’s A and E department has been struggling to cope with demand since Burnley’s A and E department was downgraded under Labour in 2007—a decision that Andy Burnham defended several times in the House, including on
“‘This is saving lives; I will stand by it’”.—[Hansard, 19 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 236.]
On behalf of the residents of Pendle, I urge the Secretary of State to take no lessons from Labour on the management of our NHS.
That is it, and that is why it is not working for the Opposition politically when they try to put the NHS centre stage. They can see people who downgraded or closed 12 A and E departments across the country during their time in office now coming to Prime Minister’s questions and trying to criticise this Government when similar things have happened. The answer on all these occasions is to put patients first, do the right thing for patients, be honest about the problems and sort them out, and that is what the Government are doing.
The hard-working and dedicated staff at Barking, Havering and Redbridge trust, at King George hospital in my constituency and Queen’s hospital in Romford, know, because their trust is in special measures, that there has been a lot of reputational damage. On
I can confirm that there is no difference in any guidelines issued for hospitals in special measures and for hospitals not in special measures. This is a good example of a trust with deep, pronounced problems over many years. There was a terrible tragedy in 2007, I think, when someone gave birth sitting on a toilet seat. This Government have said that we are going to tackle those problems and put the trust into special measures. It has more doctors and nurses: 230 more hospital nurses in the past four years in that trust. We are making a real difference—we have a new management team—and I think that things are beginning to get better in that trust in a way that has not been the case for many years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.
Do we have sufficient measures, short of declaring a major incident, to help to relieve hospitals such as Medway, where there has been an ongoing problem of excessive waiting times at A and E?
Yes, we have other measures in place. At every stage, trusts should do what is right for patients. Sometimes they declare an internal major incident, sometimes it is an external major incident, but what is important is that they take account of the impact on the rest of the local health economy. At Medway hospital, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, things are getting better. It has been through a difficult period. We have been honest about the problems, we have given it a lot of external support, and I hope that the news will continue to get better.
As we know, one cap does not fit all. That applies to the NHS as much as to anything else. In Dorset the clinical commissioning group is reviewing health services and looking for local solutions to local problems. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the long-term solution for the NHS, rather than politicians sticking their noses in where, frankly, they should not be?
I absolutely agree with that. What I will not do is go round the media and say that the problems that the NHS is facing in Dorset, as it faces everywhere, are due to the fact that the area is very rural, which is the excuse that we heard over the weekend from the shadow Health Secretary for the poor performance of the NHS in Wales. We want local solutions and the highest possible standards—what we can do is give guidance and funding from the centre and make sure that patients are always put first.
In his attempt to gag hospitals over the growing accident and emergency crisis, the Secretary of State has sanctioned guidance that “we must avoid reputational damage”. Whose reputation? His reputation? Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that his reputation on the national health service is damaged beyond repair?
I will take no lessons in stamping out news stories on poor care because I am worried about the impact on reputation. That is what happened when the shadow Health Secretary was behind my desk, and it was totally unacceptable. That is why we had a clutch of hospitals where poor care was swept under the carpet year in, year out because a Labour Government did not want bad news to come out in the run-up to an election. It was a disgrace and this Government are putting it right.
Two weeks ago I asked the Secretary of State about a comment that had been made to me by a senior clinician in Hull that the trust in Hull at Hull royal infirmary had been on internal major incidents on and off since December. The Secretary of State told me that that was not really an issue and that it was down to the trust, but the documents that have been produced today show that the real reason is that it is politically much more expedient to have an internal incident than to declare one externally and get all the bad publicity and reputational risk mentioned in the document to which my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State referred to. That is the case, is it not?
Let me make two points to the hon. Lady. When I talk to the House about the number of major incidents, we make no distinction between internal and external incidents. We talk about them all as major incidents. There is no benefit, if one looks at it in that way, to Ministers from it being either an internal or an external incident. What matters is the right thing for patients. Rather than trying to politicise the issue and turning it into a political football, the Opposition should listen to Dame Barbara Hakin, chief operating officer of the NHS, who said clearly today that the decision was nothing to do with Ministers, they did not know about it and it was not taken at the request of Ministers. Labour should concentrate on supporting the NHS where it could do with its help—in Wales today.
The Secretary of State singularly failed to answer the question from my hon. Friend Grahame M. Morris when he asked whether it would be more or less likely that a major incident would be declared as a result of the new guidance. Clearly, if it is less likely, that is bound to have an impact on patient safety. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether this issue was raised in his meeting with NHS England on Monday?
Can the Secretary of State explain why in the incident response plan from NHS England there is an entire paragraph headed “Politics” under the principles for considering an escalation response? In the House on
“The decision to declare a major incident is taken locally—there is no national definition”—[Hansard, 7 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 273.]
However, the guidance issued in the middle of January says that major incidents
“should be agreed...with the Director on call for NHS England”.
If it is not political, the Secretary of State owes the House an explanation of NHS England’s involvement and the meaning of that paragraph.
The hon. Gentleman has quoted selectively; he has not quoted the whole guidance. If he looks at the whole guidance, he will see that it clearly states that a responsible trust, before it declares a major incident, which is its decision, must make sure that there is not going to be a negative impact on the rest of the economy, because patients must always come first. He is also not saying what Dame Barbara Hakin said this morning —that none of this guidance was anything to do with Ministers.