Media blackout on Jeremy Hunt’s hospital trips
No questions allowed? Ten missed invitations for press to ask questions of health secretary
12 March, 2018 — By Tom Foot
The only clues of Jeremy Hunt’s visit to the Royal Free were tweeted photos
THE Department of Health has insisted Jeremy Hunt is not afraid to take questions from journalists – despite a 10th visit to the borough without an invite for the local press.
He sneaked in and out of the borough on Friday with another under-the-radar trip to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. Despite being the longest-serving health secretary for 30 years and making a host of visits to Camden hospitals, Mr Hunt is the first not to give an interview opportunity to the New Journal since the 1990s.
The news blackout – a challenge to the view that taking questions from the press is healthy for democracy – comes at a time of national debate over funding for the NHS and, at a local level, how health services should be organised.
Key questions which readers would be interested to hear Mr Hunt’s views on include a controversial property deal at the Whittington Hospital, in Highgate, and the removal of some treatments from NHS services. On Friday afternoon, Mr Hunt was whisked into the hospital in Pond Street to give a speech to medical staff in the main conference hall. The scraps of evidence that he had even been there were phone camera shots tweeted by the hospital.
A DoH spokeswoman said it was running a new regime of whistle-stop national hospital tours where the media were not invited. This was so Mr Hunt could save time, rather than face, as his critics would claim.
The press has been given photos of past events rather than being allowed to send their own reporters and photographers
Less than two years ago, 505 consultants at the Royal Free criticised Mr Hunt over his junior doctor contract proposals.
His media team were branded “astoundingly arrogant” by Hampstead and Kilburn Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, for their handling of Friday’s visit. “I suspect Mr Hunt and his department are not keen on local MPs or indeed local journalists showing up and holding him to account for the current shambolic state of the NHS,” she said.
Historically, it was a standard working relationship for the press to be invited when a front-bencher visited their patch. Mr Hunt’s predecessors – including Andy Burnham and Andrew Lansley – have done so in the past. While local newspapers may not expect full sit-down interviews, a short period for questions has been granted at the end of a ministerial visit.
Ms Siddiq was told there was “no need to inform external press” in a last-minute invite sent to her office.
She said she was alerted only a few hours before Mr Hunt’s visit – and too late to switch her schedule around. “I received an email at 9.52am on Friday, informing me of Jeremy Hunt’s visit to the Royal Free at 2.30pm that same day,” she added. “I’m not sure if his diary sits around empty all week, but the idea that another MP could just cancel surgery appointments, visits and meetings at the drop of a hat is astoundingly arrogant.”
Since replacing Mr Lansley in 2012, Mr Hunt has visited Camden’s health services at least 15 times, each time unannounced and without even providing two minutes for questions from local press. Instead, newspapers like the New Journal have been sent approved photographs of the event afterward.
His visits have included meetings with staff at Camden Clinical Commissioning Group and Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. Three times he has visited University College Hospital, Whittington Hospital and the Royal Free Hospital. In December 2016, he launched a national sepsis campaign at the Hampstead hospital. The previous year, he scrapped a tour of the Whittington’s new emergency care department amid rumours that a major protest had been organised to greet him at the front gates.
The Royal Free publicised Mr Hunt’s Friday visit through its Twitter account, thanking the health secretary to the dismay of one staff member, who replied: “Do not pander to that man”.
The New Journal asked the Department of Health why reporters had not been invited. In response, it sent a statement in Mr Hunt’s name, which said: “On Friday 2nd March I visited four NHS trusts in Leicester and London to meet staff and hear about their plans to improve patient safety, as part of a series of visits I have made over the last eight months to trusts across the country. Patient safety is a topic that is close to my heart and I was impressed to see my drive to reduce preventable harm embraced by so many.”