In the middle of last year’s election campaign, Matt Hancock’s sister had a very nasty accident that left her struggling for life in intensive care. Later, when she had recovered, she went to see her GP to get the all-clear to have her driving licence restored. The doctor asked why she had lost her licence in the first place. “The GP had no idea that she’d been through this experience,” said Hancock. “The system simply hadn’t thought to tell the GP.”
This was a horrifying revelation about how bad the NHS has been at getting its digital life in order – its left hand often has no idea what its right hand has been doing.
One of the self-described “missions” of the new health secretary is sorting this out. “I’ll go round the world looking for the best technology that can save lives and improve the lives of clinicians too. We need to be embracing it.”
This is a big challenge that has defeated many predecessors. He acknowledges that the health service’s history with IT projects is punctuated by “huge and costly mistakes”, including multibillion-pound programmes which were ultimately scrapped at enormous cost to the taxpayer.
Why will this time be any different? One reason, he says, is because he knows “a top-down solution” will not work. “I’ve learnt that what you need to do is have standards that are agreed nationally and then allow people locally to work out what they need. I don’t want to buy an IT system for the whole NHS, but when somebody does buy an IT system within the NHS, I want to make sure that it fits with everybody else’s.”
His admiration for private sector health tech – he has enthused about Babylon’s controversial online consultation app – leaves many wary. After everything we have been learning about the abuse of data by tech titans – and all the attacks on their platforms that he himself made when he was minister responsible for digital – does he really think they can be trusted with healthcare?
“It has to be based on consent. So your data about your health is your property. That is my starting point. That must be the principle that I will put at the foundation of data protection in the NHS.”
We suggest that his vision of a technologically transformed NHS will not be much relief to a patient stuck on a trolley waiting for treatment in A&E at three in the morning. After a prolonged financial squeeze, the health service is struggling to cope with rising demand and rising expectations from a growing and ageing population. He does not dispute that key performance indicators, such as waiting times, are heading south, though he prefers to call it “pressure”.
His predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, won an extra £20bn for the NHS over the next five years and Hancock has to make some big decisions about how to spend the money. He identifies three priorities. One will be technology. Another will be prevention. A third concern is the workforce, which he thinks is too often the victim of what he calls “old-school” management. By way of examples, he cites “rates of bullying (which) are far too high”. He’s also concerned about sexual harassment within the NHS, and “there’s too much racism. There isn’t much, but any is too much for me. I’ve seen this in the staff surveys.”
He is the first MP to have launched an app devoted to himself – and been widely mocked for doing so. One Twitter wag claims to have met his girlfriend on the Hancock app “but we tell people that we met at a bar”. Colleagues suspicious of his ambition see it as another example of relentless self-promotion.
At the same time as being a tech evangelist, he is also a fierce critic of the industry’s behemoths and remains very exercised about the effect of social media on the mental health of children. “It’s increasingly clear that unrestricted use of social media by younger children is very damaging.”
He reveals that he has asked the chief medical officer to produce guidelines, similar to those issued on safe drinking, about the use of social media by children. “The reason we need formal government guidance from the chief medical officer is to empower parents. As a parent, you want to be able to say: ‘The rules say that you shouldn’t use social media for more than a certain period of time.’”
Hancock has three children. What rules does he impose at home? “My children aren’t allowed on social media,” he says. A zero-hours rule? Doesn’t his 11-year-old call him a fascist who is preventing her from talking to her friends? “She accepts it,” he says, but “the pressure is growing … This isn’t easy for individual parents to do on their own.” That’s why we needed to create “a norm in society”.
His rise up the greasy pole of government under Theresa May has surprised some. He was a protege of George Osborne and nearly all the rest of them were purged when she became prime minister and sacked the then chancellor and culled most of his gang.
In return for her unexpected favour, Hancock is studiously loyal to his leader. He is one of the diminishing band of cabinet ministers still willing to defend her Chequers plan for Brexit, saying “there is no deal on the table” that is better. Like many Tories he fears that his party, mired in what he calls “the fog of the Brexit debate”, is losing critical arguments with Labour.
Labour’s conference was “scary” and its prospectus “could really sink Britain”. He goes on: “It is mission critical for us to win the argument for a well-run market economy. It’s more important than ever to make the argument for support of aspiration and wealth creation.”
When we ask whether May will lead the Conservatives into the next election – most Tories assume not – he answers “yeah” without missing a beat. He is more stuck for an answer when we invite him to come up with one adjective to describe the prime minister. You can almost hear the frantic clicking of his brain synapses before he produces “fastidious”. Fastidious? Is that much of a compliment to his leader? “I was going to say fortitude, but that’s not an adjective is it?”
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