The COVID pandemic has made a re-organisation of the NHS “more not less urgent”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told MPs, as he unveiled government plans.
Ministers want to better integrate health and social care through measures such as giving the NHS and local councils a duty to collaborate with each other.
The health secretary told the House of Commons that steps for improving the health of the nation would include tackling obesity and the fluoridation of water.
Under the plans unveiled by Mr Hancock, it would be easier for ministers to introduce advertising restrictions – such as a TV advert ban before the 9pm watershed – and new labelling for high-sugar and high-fat foods.
The government would also seize powers from local councils over the fluoridation of water, which can improve oral health.
At present, around 5.8 million people in England receive fluoridated water.
Mr Hancock also promised to bring forward proposals for reforming the funding of adult social care later this year.
The government’s health plans have been viewed as a reversal of many of the reforms undertaken by former prime minister David Cameron and the then health secretary, Andrew Lansley, in 2012.
Key parts of a proposed Health and Care Bill will also include:
- Every part of England to be covered by an integrated care system (ICS) by joining the NHS and local councils together legally
- Scrapping rules on tendering as part of efforts to reduce bureaucracy
- The merging of three different bodies that legally oversee the NHS into one, with NHS England to have clinical and day-to-day operational independence. But the government will get new powers to “set direction for the NHS and intervene where necessary”.
Mr Hancock said: “The practical implication is that these changes will allow the NHS to work more closely together with the different parts of the NHS and, crucially, with social care and public health colleagues.
“At the moment there are rules set out in law that stop some of that working together. We’ve seen that that’s been a problem.
“At the heart of these reforms is the idea you take the budget for the NHS in a local area, and you get an integrated team that has social care, the NHS, the GPs and the hospitals, and they commission and they do the work to spend the money as effectively as possible.”
With the NHS still reeling from the COVID pandemic, critics have questioned the timing of Mr Hancock’s proposed reforms.
But the health secretary told MPs: “The response to COVID-19 has, in my view, accelerated the pace of collaboration across health and social care, showing what we can do when we work together flexibly, adopting new technology focused on the needs of the patient and setting aside bureaucratic rules.”
He added: “The pandemic has made the changes in this White Paper more not less urgent, and it is our role in Parliament to make the legislative changes that are needed.
“There is no better time than now.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, quizzed Mr Hancock on how “fundamentally” his planned “reorganisation and power grab” would improve care for patients.
Describing frontline NHS staff as “exhausted” and “underpaid”, Mr Ashworth highlighted a warning by the Royal College of Nursing that the health service is “on its knees”.
“And this secretary of state thinks this is the right moment for a structural reorganisation of the NHS,” he added.
“Now we will study the legislation carefully when published but the test of his reorganisation will be whether it brings waiting lists and times down, widens access, especially for mental health care, drives up cancer survival rates and improves population health.”
Tory MP and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, now the chair of the Commons health committee, praised Mr Hancock’s plans as “the right thing to do and a brave thing to do”.
He also revealed he had spent the morning in hospital after slipping on his morning run and breaking his arm.
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