NHS England boss Stevens is a 'canny comms operator'

NHS England boss Simon Stevens is a "canny comms operator" who knew the risks of contradicting the Government on NHS spending, according to senior public sector comms chiefs.

NHS England chief Simon Stevens gives evidence to the PAC last week. (©PA Wire)
NHS England chief Simon Stevens gives evidence to the PAC last week. (©PA Wire)
Stevens appeared in front of the powerful Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises government spending, last week, where he contradicted Government claims that the NHS has received more money than it asked for.

Prime Minister Theresa May told Sky News that when the Government had asked the NHS what resources it needed for the next five years; it had given the service more funding than was required.

But when Stevens was asked to respond to the claim, he told the PAC it was wrong to say "we'll be getting more than we asked for", adding that the Government was "stretching it" with its description and that there were "clearly substantial funding pressures".

For added effect, Stevens, a former health advisor to Tony Blair, brandished a copy of the Daily Mail during his appearance, depicting the current woes in the NHS. 

The spat follows a series of off-record briefings from May’s aides against Stevens, criticising him for being too slow to react to pressures in A&E departments.

His comments have since been endorsed by Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative chair of Parliament’s Health Select Committee.

Simon is a canny comms operator and he knew exactly what he was doing.

A senior health comms source
However, senior and former public sector comms chiefs lined up to support Stevens speaking truth to power at the PAC.
 

Commenting on the ongoing war of words between Stevens and the Government, one senior health comms source told PRWeek: "Simon is a canny comms operator and he knew exactly what he was doing. He will have always had a different opinion as to what a satisfactory package for the NHS is and in his view it also had to include sorting out social care. So there’s a difference of opinion there and Simon was deploying the Daily Mail to make his point."

A former senior comms civil servant said of Stevens’ appearance at the PAC that he had no choice but to challenge the Government’s narrative on NHS funding and that most "reputable analysts" agreed with him.

The key thing, from a comms perspective, is that if you allow the narrative that the NHS has more money than it asked for to go unchecked is that if anything goes wrong, blame falls on the NHS.

A former senior comms civil servant
The source said: "The key thing, from a comms perspective, is that if you allow the narrative that the NHS has more money than it asked for to go unchecked is that if anything goes wrong, blame falls on the NHS. But if it does not have enough money, blame, at least in part, falls to the Government for not giving the NHS as much money as it asked for. He had a duty of candour, as a public official, to tell the truth to the committee."

And, far from Stevens marking his card with the Government and making a visit to the job centre soon, the former civil servant told PRWeek the NHS chief was safe, at least for the time-being, because the only body with the power to remove him was the board of NHS England.

He added: "It is possible No.10 could insist that he is removed from his job but if it did that, where would the biggest damage fall? They would have to find a replacement at a difficult time for the NHS - when that person’s predecessor had been removed by Downing Street - and that might be an unpalatable prospect."

Simon Stevens needs to tell MPs the facts, regardless of how inconvenient they may be to the Government of the day.

Howell James, former permanent secretary to the Government Communications Service

Meanwhile, Howell James, a former permanent secretary to the Government Communications Service and now chief executive of Quiller Consultants, said it was necessary for Stevens to speak truth to power and that both sides appeared to be patching up their differences behind the scenes.

He said: "While media handlers at No.10 and the Department won't have welcomed his candour...Simon Stevens needs to tell MPs the facts, regardless of how inconvenient they may be to the Government of the day. As the leader of our most visible public service, with a million-plus workforce, currently under great scrutiny by patients, politicians and the media, to do anything other would be to undermine his own leadership."



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