Conservative MP George Eustice urges comms clarity on NHS reforms

A Conservative MP and former aide to David Cameron has advised a 'bonfire of the acronyms' in order to better communicate the Government's NHS reforms.

Under fire: Health Secretary Andrew Lansley
Under fire: Health Secretary Andrew Lansley

A Conservative MP and former aide to David Cameron has advised a 'bonfire of the acronyms' in order to better communicate the Government's NHS reforms.

With comms experts lining up to criticise the Government's handling of the plans, George Eustice says the acronyms should be replaced by 'two or three clear propositions'.

Writing in his regular PRWeek column, the Tory MP for Camborne and Redruth also advises Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to highlight 'the simple fact that NHS spending is increasing in real terms every year'.

On Monday, following a reported intervention from the Prime Minister, Lansley confirmed that his NHS reforms would be delayed while ministers considered the Bill.

There has been mounting criticism of the Government's comms around the subject, following a discussion paper published by the NHS Confederation, which said that comms are both failing to support the reforms and 'adding to the risks of failure.'

In the report, Nigel Edwards, the confederation's acting chief executive, called for a 'compelling narrative' in favour of the reforms and said the Government needed to 'ask itself some hard questions' about how it managed the reforms moving forward.

The Department of Health also came under fire from Edwards for 'providing negative comments about the NHS to counter positive stories', and for coming under pressure to publish favourable opinion polls. 'Even if the case for change is strong, the Government has not made the case that this particular set of reforms is the answer,' he added.

The DH had not responded to these claims as PRWeek went to press, but former DH comms adviser Angus Wrixon suggested that Lansley himself should shoulder the bulk of the blame for poor communication of the plans.

He said: 'Lansley has always been quite clear about his vision for the reforms, at least post-election. But he has clearly failed to communicate this vision with those who should have been his natural advocates, let alone any detractors.'

Wrixon previously headed comms at DH Pharmacy, which oversees policy on medicines and pharmacy from the development of medicines to their use by the patient.

POLICY TIMELINE

4 April The Health Secretary acknowledges concerns over his NHS reform proposals and pledges to 'pause, listen and engage'.

31 March The NHS publishes a discussion paper, criticising comms of the reforms.

19 January The Government publishes its Health and Social Care Bill and it begins progressing through Parliament.

July 2010 The Government's white paper, Equity and excellence: liberating the NHS, is published, setting out a new vision for the health service in England.

 

450 - Number of GP consortia replacing NHS trusts (approx)*

80% - The percentage of the NHS budget that will fall to GPs**

£80bn - The amount of NHS budget GPs will control per year under the reforms**

£20bn - The amount GPs will be asked to save over the next four years*

Source: *Packer Forbes; **Media reports

HOW I SEE IT

Angus Wrixon, client services director, Salix Consulting

My view is that the Government never really had its eye on the ball with these reforms and has been too distracted by the economy and trying to make the coalition work. It might have been forgiven for thinking that Lansley, a safe pair of hands and a highly credible man, had a firmer grip on the detail of his plans, given that he had been opposition health minister for seven years. You could also add that the timing of the departure of Andy Coulson and the arrival of Craig Oliver at Number 10 was unfortunate.

But, it is scarcely credible that neither Lansley nor Number 10 appears to have seen a potential comms issue the size of the NHS on the horizon. What did their respective comms teams and advisers suggest as a counter to the old mantra, 'you meddle with the NHS at your peril'?

JAMES TYRELL, DIRECTOR, INSIGHT PUBLIC AFFAIRS

Just last month, David Cameron stated at PMQs that 'no-one knows the NHS better than Andrew Lansley'.

However, the lack of faith bestowed in the DH's ministerial and comms team, particularly the health special advisers' ability to convey not just the details of the changes being proposed, but the rationale or narrative, became clear as soon as Cameron brought Tony Blair's former health adviser Paul Bate to Number 10. It would be very difficult for the PM to replace Lansley, the architect of the structural reforms.

To do so would mean forcing Cameron to perform a complete U-turn, which would undermine his own judgement and maybe his position.

It was always going to be difficult to communicate the reforms, but I am surprised Cameron gave Lansley so many attempts to try to get it right.

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