Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt today throws his weight behind a controversial ‘NHS tax’ to tackle the timebomb of how to pay for elderly people in care.
In an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, he suggests it could solve the ‘dementia tax’ row that badly damaged Theresa May’s Election campaign last year.
Mr Hunt also pledges to end the ‘unfairness’ of cancer patients getting costly treatment for free while dementia sufferers are ‘cleaned out’ of their savings to pay care bills.
The Health Secretary suggests it could solve the ‘dementia tax’ row that badly damaged Theresa May’s Election campaign last year
But he knows his support for a ‘hypothecated’ tax – when money goes directly to the NHS, not the Treasury – sets him on a collision course with Chancellor Philip Hammond, who hates giving up his grip on the nation’s purse strings.
Mr Hunt says: ‘It is beyond dispute that with a million more over- 75s in ten years’ time, the NHS and social care system are going to need more money.
‘The public are very clear that for that specific issue they are willing to pay more tax but want to know that every penny is going to be spent wisely.’
Asked if the appeal of such a ringfenced tax was that it would guarantee to help the elderly and infirm, Mr Hunt says: ‘Absolutely. That is the attraction.’
His pledge comes in a wide-ranging interview in which he:
- Candidly declares it is wrong to believe NHS hospitals are ‘very safe’ and vows to slash ‘150 avoidable deaths’ every week;
- Speaks movingly about the anguish of watching his grandmother, Betty, lose her senses one by one before she died in a nursing home aged 100.
- Reveals how his father Nicholas, a Royal Navy admiral, died four years ago from asbestosis caused by contamination from one of the ships he commanded.
There is a palpable new swagger to Mr Hunt, 51, who has always appeared too clean-cut to compete with his more ruthless rivals – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – to be Prime Minister. The only time the Health Secretary’s bedside manner is ruffled during our hour-long interview is when I enquire if he really did ask an anti-female genital mutilation campaigner about orgasms.
Hunt watched his dear grandmother Betty, pictured here, struggle in her last days
Any suggestion he lacks the thrust to get to the top were scotched two months ago when Mrs May summoned him to No 10 to give him the push. He refused to quit his post – and the ‘Maybot’ crumbled.
Further evidence of his extra Cabinet clout came last week when he wrestled a bumper £4 billion- a-year pay deal for NHS workers from Mr Hammond.
Now Mr Hunt is focusing on two other objectives – curbing ‘preventable deaths’ in the NHS, starting with extra midwives, and solving a major cause of Mrs May’s botched Election last year, the ‘dementia tax’ fiasco.
Everyone accepts that the ageing population means vast sums will be needed to pay for people with conditions such as dementia.
At present, dementia sufferers in care homes can have all but their last £23,250 stripped from them. Mrs May planned to increase the limit, but fatally she also vowed to grab their property if they needed care at home.
If Mr Hunt gets his way, there could be a radical ‘hypothecated’ tax so that money goes direct to the NHS, bypassing Mr Hammond’s greedy Treasury.
It is seen by some as a way of making tax rises more palatable by ringfencing the cash for popular causes such as care for the elderly and the NHS. A 1p tax rise raises about £5 billion a year. But in return, Mr Hunt would let those with dementia keep their homes and savings. He stresses he has not made up his mind – and it is up to Mrs May and Mr Hammond to decide the matter. But he leaves little doubt as to his intentions.
Mr Hunt leaving Downing street. The 51-year-old has always appeared too clean-cut to compete with his more ruthless rivals – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to be Prime Minister
‘No one can deny we got our fingers burned on social care in the Election,’ he says. Asked if an ‘NHS tax’ appeals to him, Mr Hunt says: ‘If we want every single old person to be treated with the dignity and respect we would want for our own mum or dad, it will need more resources.’ It is vital to be ‘open-minded to innovative models of taxation’ to provide the cash.
‘The British people say, “I don’t mind more money going to the NHS but I want to know it is for the NHS and won’t be wasted.” ’
Mr Hunt says it is wrong that ‘if you get dementia your assets are far more at risk than if you get cancer. I would like to get rid of the unfairness whereby the assets of your loved ones can be cleaned out if you get dementia’.
He stresses he has not made his mind up on a hypothecated NHS tax and acknowledges winning over Mr Hammond will not be easy. ‘The Treasury do not like it because it takes it out of their hands,’ he admits.
His voice falters as he recalls the final days of his grandmother Betty, who died aged 100 in a nursing home in 2003. ‘By the end she lost nearly all her senses one by one. She couldn’t see or speak, all she could do was hear,’ he says.
Hunt would like to see money go straight into the NHS rather than the treasury. Here, Philip Hammond and Theresa May
‘We’re going to have a lot more people like her. Living to 100 won’t be the exception as it was for my grandmother – it will be the norm. My kids have a 50 per cent chance of living until they are 103.’ Mr Hunt and his Chinese-born wife Lucia have three children – John, seven, Anna, six, and Ellie, three.
He also saw his father, Sir Nicholas Hunt, Betty’s son, die a painful death in 2013 as a result of contact with asbestos formerly used in ships.
Mr Hunt says the shocking Mid Staffs NHS scandal in 2010, where up to 1,200 people died because of blunders, has made him think again about hospital safety.
‘There are much higher levels of avoidable harm and death in modern health care systems than the public really understand. People assume hospitals are very safe places,’ he says.
‘In reality, in modern health systems all over the world, we harm around ten per cent of patients. There are about 150 preventable NHS deaths every week. Too much care is unsafe.’
For this Health Secretary, plain speaking is clearly more important than a reassuring bedside manner.
The man who took on Theresa May… and won: SIMON WALTERS says the PM has given Jeremy Hunt a leadership platform
Jeremy Hunt freely admits that when he was made Health Secretary nearly six years ago he knew ‘absolutely nothing about health’.
Having just survived one of the worst winters for the NHS for years, as well as a recent attempt by Prime Minister Theresa May to fire him, it would be richly ironic if he were to end up succeeding her.
Until recently, such a prospect would have been dismissed out of hand by Tory MPs. But Mr Hunt’s new-found glow, combined with the Conservatives’ failure to campaign effectively on the NHS in last year’s Election, has changed that.
The Health Secretary bridles when I suggest he has Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to thank for getting billions more to fund pay rises for NHS workers.
But there is some truth in it. The Brexit-obsessed Tories foolishly allowed Labour to play its trump card against them: the NHS isn’t safe in Conservative hands.
Now Mrs May has been forced to pay up to prove it is – and that has given Mr Hunt a leadership platform.
As an anti-Brexit campaigner who now says he would vote to leave, Mr Hunt is well placed if the party is looking for another unifying figure.
By coincidence, I bumped into a Brexit Minister shortly after parting from Mr Hunt.
Telling him I had just interviewed his colleague, the response was brusque: ‘Parading his leadership ambitions no doubt. Few Tories have become leader on the back of giving money to the NHS.’
A sober reminder that winning over his party’s support for ‘Hunt for PM’ could be tougher than wooing the NHS-loving public.