Who’s Matt Hancock? The health secretary’s only legacy will be how quickly he’s forgotten | Denis Campbell


I have never seen such an empty vessel as a cabinet minister”. This is one NHS chief executive’s verdict on Matt Hancock’s stint as health and social care secretary. It is a harsh judgment, but it reflects a widespread view among NHS bosses that if Boris Johnson’s imminent formation of his first government leads to Hancock leaving for another job, few will miss him. Whether he stays or leaves, history will judge his first, possibly only, year running the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) as something odd in ministerial tenures – an irrelevance.

Hancock is neither liked nor respected by those running NHS trusts. They disliked Andrew Lansley and hated his health and social care bill, but acknowledged his deep thinking about the health service and intense preparation for being the health secretary. They had misgivings about Jeremy Hunt for his alienation of staff in pursuit of the government’s ambition of a “seven-day NHS”, but belatedly respected him for him getting to grips with diffcult issues and ending the NHS’s austerity funding.

But Hancock? Privately NHS leaders are highly critical. “He’s very arrogant. It’s all about his own career,” said one. There is a widespread perception that he has taken the ministerial tendency to chase headlines to unprecedented heights, while showing no deep interest in many key areas of challenge. However, his suggestion during the Tory leadership race of unrestricted entry for overseas doctors and nurses was the sort of bold idea needed if the NHS workforce crisis is to be overcome. “For him, it’s all about promoting himself and using it as a stepping stone to his next job,” said another NHS chief. There are suggestions that some of Hancock’s own civil servants share these concerns.

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Soon after succeeding Hunt on 10 July last year Hancock identified his three key NHS priorities as understaffing; the prevention of ill-health; and much greater adoption of technology. So, against his self-defined targets, what has he actually done?

A year on, the NHS’s gravest challenge – its lack of staff and the impact that is having on services – remains as serious as ever. The Interim NHS People Plan, published last month, failed to make the radical changes needed to immigration policy, medical training, funding Health Education England properly, restoring bursaries for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, how staff are treated and so on. The plan was issued by NHS Improvement, so it would be unfair to blame him for its near vacuity but it was the only meaningful stab during his time at addressing a problem that poses a potentially existential threat to the NHS and its much-vaunted long-term plan.Yet the document was, to use a phrase beloved of his new boss, a pile of piffle.

His promised green paper on prevention of ill-health, setting out government plans to confront the huge avoidable loss of life from bad diet, smoking and alcohol, was finally published without fanfare – buried, in effect – on the gov.uk website on Monday night. Meanwhile, the green paper on social care remains as illusory as ever.

Tech is the only area in which he’s made a mark. His evangelical zeal has forced the NHS to do more to use it to improve care and reduce the workload of hard-pressed staff. But his belief that tech can solve many of the NHS’s difficulties had led to him being derided by people he needs to respect him. Trust bosses have tired of showing Hancock around and explaining a problem, only for him to respond: “There’s an app that should help fix that.” The NHS England chief executive tapped into that astonishment when, to loud laughter, he asked at a public event last week: “Alexa … where is Matt Hancock’s social care green paper? There’s no answer.”

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If Hancock departs the DHSC this week for the bigger job he clearly craves, how will he be remembered? He will be forgotten.



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