A few years back a No10 aide rang me at The Sun to offer an exclusive: Theresa May’s team had decided to save Frosties’ icon “Tony the Tiger”.
It was sold-in as a big victory against nanny state campaigners who wanted cartoon inducements wiped off the face of the earth to tackle childhood obesity.
Unfortunately for No10, the Editor didn’t fancy the yarn much – as remarked in a blistering memoir by one-time May spinner Katie Perrior.
I remembered this the other day when Boris Johnson enraged the health lobby worried about a diabetes timebomb by delaying a decision on whether to axe “buy one get one free” offers in supermarkets, another well-rehearsed proposal to fight bulging waistlines.
His decision proved if there’s one thing this government actually does well – it’s kicking cans down the road.
But if there’s one area where government dithering could become life threatening – it’s healthcare.
Covid taught us many things but arguably the most important was the value of what we’ve got in healthcare – from heroes on the front-line to heroes in big pharma.
Yet the cost of maintaining the NHS – let alone improving it – is rising inexorably and huge cracks are beginning to show despite billions upon billions more being poured into the system.
Waiting lists stand at 6.4 million and could hit 14 million by the next General Election; we need 40,000 nurses; there isn’t a single NHS dentist in the entire county of Somerset.
And woe betide you need an ambulance in Cornwall. Things are so bad there that paramedics often start their shift by going to one of 20 ambulances stuck in a traffic jam outside the main hospital in Treliske because there aren’t any beds.
At the same time, there has been a staggering rise in bureaucracy and officials on eye-watering pay.
The experience of Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social reforms – and the strong union representation in the workforce – mean few politicians are actually brave enough to try confront the problems in the NHS. But put frankly, big decisions are needed and can’t be put off any longer.
Step forward current Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
Friends of “The Saj” have made it clear that he sees his mission as delivering wide-ranging reforms to not only ensure the NHS recovers from Covid but is put on a sustainable footing.
Pals say he wants the NHS to show signs of very real progress in exchange for the money it’s receiving. In short, to prove we’re getting more bang for our buck.
The Health Secretary points out the NHS budget is bigger than the GDP of Greece at a whopping £170bn. And health spending is expected to be 44 per cent of public service spending by 2024 – compared with 27 per cent in 2000.
Expect to hear a lot more about his plans in the next few weeks – not least when the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Gordon Messenger publishes his eagerly awaited review of leadership in the NHS. The General has been tasked with blasting “wokery and waste”.
Sajid wants to focus on Prevention – stop people getting unwell in the first place, Personalisation – patients in control of their health, Performance – driving up standards across trusts, and People – growing and developing the workforce.
The first big target is GPs in the belief they need to up their game.
There were hints at what’s coming in January when the Tories talked about “nationalising” GPs – integrating GP surgeries into hospitals trusts in a bid to do more to stop people developing serious illness.
Aides point to Wolverhampton as an example of the model at work. There, the city’s hospital has essentially taken over 10 GP practices and has managed to reduce emergency admissions.
But there is far more that needs to be done, not least working out how best to use the private sector.
Ultimately we need to shift our view – the health service isn’t something that kicks in when we need an ambulance or life-saving vaccine, but is something that ensures we don’t need to go to A&E.
For instance, why not create primary care centres with diagnostic and treatment facilities, from x-rays to mental health treatment and diabetes clinics.
During Covid, the nation stood still to applaud the huge efforts of nurses and doctors.
If Sajid Javid can go even some way to moving the dial and developing a more efficient and effective NHS, he’ll deserve a very big round of applause himself.