by Nima Ghadiri
Jeremy Hunt is the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Health. He is currently engaged in a colossal dispute with junior doctors over a new contract proposal which he states is better for junior doctors and will make the hospital a safer place at weekends. His detractors believe that the new contract is in practice less safe, spreads doctors too thinly over the week and is already resulting in an exodus of doctors from the health service. Many have observed that he has wilfully misinterpreted cause-and-effect in quoting data about weekend mortality rates, and that a routine 7-day health service is a noble goal, but needs to be matched with an increase in spending – when in practice the opposite is happening in the United Kingdom.
In anger over this proposed contract, Junior Doctors went on strike for the first time in forty years on Tuesday 12th January, providing emergency care only. This is to be followed by a further 48-hour strike on Tuesday 26th January and a strike of all services (including emergency) on Wednesday 10th February. Jeremy Hunt believes that junior doctors are being misinformed by their union, and has threatened a “nuclear option” of introducing a contract regardless of whether doctors agree to it.
But who is Jeremy Hunt, and what is his pedigree? He was born from aristocratic lineage in London and raised in Surrey. His education took place at the prestigious Charterhouse boarding school, where he became head boy, and he went on to get a first-class honours degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University (a degree infamous for its association with the establishment).
Subsequently, he worked as a management consultant for two years, before moving to Japan to work as an English language teacher. On his return to the United Kingdom, he embarked on a number of business ventures, chief amongst these a failed effort to export marmalade to Japan.
In 2000, Jeremy Hunt established an educational publishing business called Hotcourses with his friend Mike Elms, funded for seven years by the taxpayer-funded British Council via an intermediate company called Sheffield Data Services (based in West London). Hotcourses was a monopoly supplier for the British Council, which by happy coincidence was vice-chaired by Jeremy Hunt’s cousin and confidante Baroness Virginia Bottomley (former secretary of state for health). In 2014, Jeremy Hunt missed out on a potential £17 million windfall after private equity firm Inflexion pulled out on a deal to buy Hotcourses. Nevertheless, he remains well-remunerated (earning £960,000 in 2015 from the company) and the fact remains that for a decade the British taxpayer helped set up and sustain a
monopolistic arrangement which proved to be highly profitable.
Indeed, Jeremy Hunt has shown that that he is adept at personal financial management. In April 2010, he managed to avoid a tax bill of £100,000 for Hotcourses by paying himself a dividend for his company in the form of half its office building, days before the government accounted a 10% rise in its tax on dividends.
Whether his pecuniary abilities have extended to the National Health Service, has proven to be a different issue. He has overseen a peculiar cycle since taking over from Andrew Lanslet as Secretary of State for Health: In 2013 the government spent £1.4 billion on NHS redundancies, then £3.9 billion filling the gaps with temporary agency staff run by recruitment agencies. Headhunter firms have had a significant role in vetting key staff within this restructured Health Service. Key amongst these is Odgers Berndston, whose chair and CEO is, again, Jeremy Hunt’s cousin Baroness Virginia Bottomley.
With his mentor Baroness Bottomley acting as a powerful lobbyist in the private health sector, it is no surprise that Jeremy Hunt has made overtures in favour of privatisation.
In his co-authored book Direct Democracy (p78 Jeremy Hunt et al), he stated:
In 2015, Jeremy Hunt signed the largest privatisation deal in history, worth £780 million, to eleven private firms in order to perform diagnostic tests and procedures on NHS patients.
Jeremy Hunt has thus-far managed successfully to avoid media scrutiny for these huge contracts, and this has chiefly been a result of his very close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. During his time in his previous role as Culture Secretary, his Office provided near-daily updates to Rupert and his son James regarding a proposed takeover of BskyB by News Corp. This relationship has remained strong and has ensured that media coverage of the impending NHS privatisation (which would be immensely unpopular for the British public) has been stifled.
Many who work in the National Health Service have no doubt that the end-goal is to privatise the service, which has been deemed unwieldy by the previous Labour government and the current Conservative government. As the first group to be targeted, Junior Doctors have rallied to defend the Health Service, voting for industrial action with an overwhelming mandate (99.4% supporting industrial action with 98% supporting a full strike). Jeremy Hunt
has raised the stakes by proposing a “nuclear option” and remains extraordinarily unpopular with NHS staff, such that he has refused to be interviewed alongside a member of the organisation he oversees. The next steps will be crucial, as the government decide whether it is worth persisting with Jeremy Hunt and alienating the consultants of the future (whether there remains a National Health Service or not) or replace Jeremy Hunt and continue covert privatisation goals by other means.