One of the quirks of our democracy is that it sometimes relies on unelected public servants to speak truth to power. The Covid pandemic has heightened that responsibility more than ever, not least as Boris Johnson has quietly ditched the Michael Gove claim that “the people of this country have had enough of experts”.
Today, we saw just how two senior officials, Chris Whitty and Simon Stevens, try to shape the big calls made by ministers, especially the prime minister. Working in part for the government, but not part of the government, each has a unique status that ensures their words matter. Both speak softly, but carry a big stick of influence.
In evidence to the Commons Science and Tech Committee, Whitty gave the PM his full support while cleverly also giving him virtually no wriggle room over his roadmap out of lockdown. Any attempt to shorten the five-week gap between stages of the roadmap would inevitably cause more fatalities, he said. “If you open up too fast, a lot more people die...a lot more people die”. Yes, he said it twice, in case anyone failed to get the message in the Tory backbench Covid Recovery Group.
But in making his case, Whitty also appeared to write the first draft of the public inquiry into the pandemic in the UK: “The history of this all around the world is not full of countries and individual leaders wishing they had done more [relaxations] fast. It’s full of leaders who wish they had actually acted quicker [on lockdown], and then been more careful as they take things off [with unlockdown].”
That felt like England’s chief medical officer hinting the country had locked down too late and eased too quickly over the past year. And while supporting the PM’s roadmap caution, Whitty also had a subtle but important reference to his worries about the key elements of it. After this week’s school reopening, he said the next big dates (March 8, April 12, May 17 and June 21) were “large blocks of potential risk” because they were made up of so many different relaxations. It made me wonder if each stage may be split into smaller parts, and delayed.
As Whitty spoke, NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens was giving evidence to the Commons health select committee with no less power, but with perhaps even more guile. First, he confirmed that a 2.1% pay rise had been planned for NHS staff until last week’s 1% announcement. Second, he said he wanted “to see properly rewarded staff”, not least given the past year they’d been through. But third, he also warned the NHS as a whole had an “urgent need” for more money (next month in fact) to cope.
Stevens suggested either Matt Hancock could issue a ministerial direction to bring forward more emergency funds for the NHS or the Treasury could announce a bigger slice of the pie for the first half of this year. And he seemed to have a gimlet eye directed at Rishi Sunak, pointing out ever so gently that the November spending review had been followed by an unprecedented December, January and February of pressure on hospitals. And the Budget still had no extra funds for the NHS.
The NHS chief exec prefers the stiletto to the sledgehammer, and few could have been in doubt the chancellor was in his mind when he said that Test and Trace (a service to which he never adds the prefix ‘NHS’) had “already..been allocated additional funding for next year”. For good measure, he pointed out Sunak’s plans for extending furlough also ran into the next financial year. On wider funding and on NHS pay, Stevens’ message was crystal clear.
Which brings us to the last unelected figure who dominated today’s politics of healthcare. Within minutes of Whitty and Stevens ending their evidence sessions, junior minister Lord Bethell popped up in the Lords to declare that “nurses are well paid for the job..they have a secure job and they have other benefits” and that many people look of jobs in the NHS “with some envy”. And the kicker: ”There is a long queue of people who want these positions because they are rewarding in many different ways.”
To many in the health service that will sound like the hardball bosses’ argument of years gone by, namely that “if you don’t like it here, there’s loads of people waiting to take your place”. Although recruitment is booming to nursing, when it was pointed out by a Lib Dem peer that pay freezes may make current staff less likely to stay, Bethell added: “I am not sure that retention is necessarily the challenge that the noble Baroness suggests”. Let’s see about that.
Bethell’s remarks are sure to be seized on by Keir Starmer in PMQs on Wednesday, but Whitty and Stevens’ words could also be cited. The difference is of course that the health minister is part of the government, not an adviser to it. Will Boris Johnson come clean and admit that Bethell does represent, albeit in blunt terms, his own view of what NHS staff are actually worth? And are experienced nurses really as disposable as the gloves and masks many of them have had to wear on the hospital frontline this past year?