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LONDON — Taking over as health secretary during a pandemic was never going to be a walk in the park, but the public health crisis is only one among several daunting tasks awaiting Sajid Javid in his new post.
Javid was announced as the U.K.’s new health secretary on Saturday, after his predecessor Matt Hancock quit when a video of him kissing an aide and breaching coronavirus restrictions in the process emerged.
The former banker is no stranger to taking on big jobs, having previously served in a host of major Cabinet roles including home secretary and, most recently, a short stint as chancellor. But there is enough awaiting the new health secretary in his in-tray to strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned political operative.
On the face of it, Javid is cut from a similar political cloth to Hancock. He was a mentee of former Chancellor George Osborne, who served in the Cabinets of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
But Javid seems eager to draw a line between himself and his predecessor straight off the bat. The most immediate responsibility facing the new health secretary is to try to lead the country on a steady path towards lower infection rates, maximum vaccine take-up and the removal of all remaining coronavirus restrictions.
Javid was cheered by backbenchers as he told MPs he was “honoured” to take up the role. He said the “past year has been a difficult one” as he was “frustrated” to not have been able to play a full role in battling COVID from the front bench.
In remarks which will encourage impatient Conservative MPs, he said: “My task is to help return the economic and cultural life which makes this country so great, while of course protecting life and the NHS.” But he confirmed that the final step of reopening would happen on July 19 (and not an earlier potential date of July 5). “No date we choose comes with zero risk for COVID. We know we cannot simply eliminate it,” he told MPs.
Speaking ahead of the statement, Javid gave a hefty clue as to his instincts on reopening. “It’s going to be irreversible, there’s no going back,” he told the BBC, adding that it was his “absolute priority” to lift the rules “as quickly as possible.” The statement was in marked contrast to Hancock’s often more cautious approach.
Downing Street sought to stress this was no departure from the prime minister’s stated aim of an “irreversible” route out of lockdown measures, but Conservative lockdown “hawks” who would like to move faster have interpreted it as a sign he’s willing to take a more bullish stance than Hancock.
Salma Shah, his former special adviser, said: “He’s perhaps signaling his approach, rather than committing to one action or another. I think what he’s trying to say is that, even though he’s health secretary, he has to give mind to other aspects of it as well, particularly the economy, because you can’t treat these things as if they’re in silos.”
A Whitehall official went further, saying it was a “convenient” tack for Javid to take, given that the fiercest confrontations over the calibration of restrictions are over, at least for now, and “we are, in theory, on the home stretch.” The official acknowledged that could change later this year with new outbreaks and the need for booster jabs.
Separate but related is the need to get the NHS into better working condition after more than a year of untold strain on its resources and staff. The chair of the British Medical Association council, Chaand Nagpaul, said at the weekend Javid could expect a “baptism of fire”, with a record five-plus million patients on NHS waiting lists.
This was echoed by Saffron Cordery of NHS Providers, who warned of “significantly high levels of vacancies within the service” and Matthew Taylor of the NHS Confederation, highlighting “increased and more complex demand, and staff on the verge of burnout.”
Frances O’Grady, general-secretary of the Trades Union Congress, told POLITICO that NHS and care workers are “absolutely exhausted and quite fearful about what’s coming next” and that Javid’s first questions to answer are: “How are you going to motivate that workforce? What’s your plan?”
Why fearful? It has to do with a drastic overhaul of the NHS’s organization this year, which No. 10 confirmed on Monday would go ahead. The bill will give the health secretary new powers to direct NHS England, interfere in local structures and get rid of so-called arm’s length bodies.
Some of the plans to put integrated services on a firmer footing have been broadly welcomed, but the reforms are regarded with deep suspicion across the health service, summed up in a British Medical Journal editorial as “the wrong proposals at the wrong time.”
Then there is social care: probably the most complex and expensive domestic policy problem in front of the government right now, which it has committed to solving by the end of the year at the same time as not raising taxes.
If that wasn’t enough, Javid must also reach an NHS pay agreement, decide on a new NHS England chief executive, reform mental health legislation, and set up the UK Health Security Agency and Office for Health Promotion.
How will he approach all this? The most common criticism among his detractors is that while he is experienced and media-savvy, Javid is something of a lightweight and has not overseen technical reforms in a service-providing department before. Or as former No. 10 adviser Dominic Cummings put it in a tweet at the weekend, he is “bog standard, chasing headlines.”
But he is well-liked in his party and the civil service, and his appointment has been cautiously greeted by traditional Conservative MPs. One Tory MP said it showed there was a “way back” for those Johnson had previously spurned.
Javid also has a wealth of Treasury experience behind him which will be fundamental in confronting many of the challenges ahead. Shah, Javid’s former special adviser, points out that that this comes not just from his time at the Treasury but also in weathering a series of spending reviews in his various secretary of state roles.
Among all the departments, health is perhaps the closest to people’s lives, and now more so than ever. Javid’s readiness to discuss his own background and the importance of health and education services to him suggests he should be comfortable taking on that brief, but that will not insulate him completely from the battles fast approaching.
His backbench colleagues appear content to grant him fair amount of goodwill as he takes on the new role. He is going to need it.
Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.
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