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Newly appointed health secretary commits to finding strike action resolution

Victoria Atkins MP has been appointed as England’s new secretary of state for health and social care in a Cabinet reshuffle, Downing Street has confirmed.

She used her first speech in post to commit to ‘getting around the table’ regarding the strike action among NHS consultants and junior doctors.

She said that she is ‘acutely aware’ of how the strikes have disrupted patient care, and she ‘wants to see a fair and reasonable resolution’.

During the speech, which was pre-recorded and delivered virtually at the NHS Providers annual conference in Liverpool, Ms Atkins said: ‘We’ll face challenges along the way. But believe me, I am an optimist.

‘Together, we can overcome these challenges, and take the long-term decisions that will build a brighter future for our NHS.

‘And this is the approach I will take to industrial action. I’m acutely aware of how the strikes have disrupted patient care, and I’m committed to getting around the table.

‘Because, I want to see a fair and reasonable resolution. This winter will be challenging, but I know that rising to such challenges is what you all do so well.’

Workforce priorities

Welcoming Ms Atkins‘ appointment, president of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Dr Sarah Clarke said: ‘As we have consistently said, retaining the hardworking staff we have now is necessary to bringing down waiting lists and ensuring the health service is able to meet demand now and in the future. This means resourcing the service appropriately.

‘Acting on retention must be the top priority for the new secretary of state, including continuing talks and finding a resolution to industrial action. Getting the basics right including embracing flexible working, improving IT equipment and ensuring staff have time for research and teaching will all make a difference to improve retention of staff.

‘We welcome the secretary of state’s comments on driving forward discussions with trade unions. It is crucial that staff feel valued and supported.‘

Dr Clarke said the RCP looks forward to working with the secretary of state on these workforce issue, as well as wider issues such as reducing health inequalities, prioritising prevention and tackling climate change.

Strike action ‘top of the agenda‘

Also responding to Ms Atkins‘ appointment, NHS Providers chief executive Sir Julian Hartley said: ‘Trust leaders will welcome the appointment of Victoria Atkins as health and social care secretary. This change comes at a critical juncture for the sector, which faces unprecedented challenges.

‘Top of the agenda is the resolution to ongoing industrial action. The cumulative impact of strikes on patients, staff and the NHS cannot be understated. Constructive dialogue between the Government and unions is key to finding a sustainable solution.

‘Ahead of the Autumn Statement, we urge her to ensure sufficient capital investment in deteriorating NHS facilities and equipment. This is vital for the sustainability and modernisation of health services.‘

Earlier this month, the British Medical Association (BMA) launched a re-ballot of hospital consultants to extend their industrial action mandate until June next year.

The union said that talks between BMA leaders and Government on how to resolve both pay disputes were still underway, but ‘no credible offer’ has been put on the table.

The BMA also said that ‘productive and intensive talks’ between the consultants committee and the Government had began, after ministers agreed to meet with the committee in the hope to find a resolution to the pay dispute.

In July, consultants announced additional strike dates over the summer after rejecting ‘final’ pay offer of 6% from the Government, despite the Government saying ‘no amount of strikes’ would change its position.

Professor Philip Banfield, BMA council chair, said: ‘The new health secretary must make solving the NHS’s workforce crisis her top priority. Negotiations to find a fair way forward to restore doctors’ lost pay and value their unique expertise must continue unabated. Long waiting lists and striking doctors have the same root causes – a catastrophic and chronic under-investment in our NHS.’

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He added: ’It would be disastrous if the revolving door of health secretaries was responsible for the failure of talks and further strike action.’

Professor Banfield called on Ms Atkins to ’take action to rebuild a health service that is fit for purpose and for patients’ and ’without delay’.

Strong and integrated care

In her speech, the new secretary of state for health and social care also highlighted the importance of primary and secondary care working together to help create ’strong and integrated’ care across England.

She also said that delivering the Urgent and Emergency Care Recovery Plan for winter would be her ‘number one priority’.

And she highlighted the government’s long-term workforce and other recovery plans.

Ms Atkins recognised there was ‘a lot of work to do’ to ensure the health service was ‘in fighting fit form for our children and our grandchildren’.

She added that building on government reforms to ‘create strong and integrated care systems across England’ would be ‘a shared endeavour’.

‘And it will require all of us to work in partnership. Across our acute hospitals, mental health, community, general practice and pharmacy,’ the secretary of state for health and social care told the conference.

While stressing the coming winter ‘will be challenging’, Ms Atkins said: ‘I know that rising to such challenges is what you all do so well.’

‘You’ve overcome a once in a generation pandemic. You’ve tackled the longest waits for care it left behind. And you’re delivering reforms that will give patients more choice and control over their care,’ she added.

In addition, she noted that ‘clear recovery plans’, ‘financial certainty for the rest of the year’ and ‘the first-ever, fully funded, reform-focused, long-term workforce plan’ were in place.

Chair of the health and social care select committee Steve Brine MP welcomed Ms Atkins‘ appointment, which he said comes ‘at a critical time for the NHS with the number of patients waiting for treatment at a record high‘.

And he urged the new secretary of state for health and social care to prioritise prevention.

‘Preventing ill-health will be key to helping the NHS manage its resources. Prevention is one of this committee’s priorities and I hope it will be high up the on new secretary of state’s agenda too,’ he said.

Who is health secretary Victoria Atkins?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appointed the Lincolnshire MP to succeed Steve Barclay in the reshuffle of his top team. Mr Barclay will stay in the Cabinet as environment, food and rural affairs secretary.

Ms Atkins has been the MP for Louth and Horncastle since 2015 and was previously financial secretary to the Treasury, minister for women, minister for prisons and probation, and minister for Afghan resettlement.

Ms Atkins will be the seventh health secretary since 2018.

She has previously said she was one of the first members of her family to go to university, reading law at Cambridge. Before becoming an MP, she worked as a criminal barrister specialised in prosecuting serious organised crime.

However, she has political ‘pedigree’, being the daughter of former Tory MP and MEP Sir Robert Atkins.

Image credit: Chris McAndrew.