The day after her appointment as Health Secretary, Thérèse Coffey announced her NHS approach: ABCD. Ambulances, Backlog, Care, Doctors and Dentists. Although an admittedly snappy slogan, the issues Coffey faces can’t be condensed into a nursery rhyme. In fact, her linguistic style has already raised eyebrows after a miscalculated email to civil servants requested them to stop using the Oxford comma.
Such trivial preferences don’t mix well with the harsh realities of the current NHS crisis. There are over 105,000 job vacancies. The NHS waiting list has hit 6.8 million and will not peak until 2024. This is compounded by the failure of previous Tory ministers to implement effective NHS reform for over twelve years. Coffey inherits the narrative that her party is pro-privatisation and that it is underfunding the NHS, a narrative which has bubbled away, if not grown, as the years have passed.
Tomorrow is expected to be Coffey’s first major communications challenge as Health Secretary, as she sets out an “emergency plan” to tackle the issues facing the NHS. So what can she do?
Coffey must communicate with urgency to soothe fears over the winter. It remains to be seen whether her dual position as Health Secretary and Deputy PM will be a blessing or a curse, potentially leaving her over-stretched. However, her broader remit over the government’s affairs stands her in a good position to talk about the health crises facing the UK in a more holistic, and consequently more meaningful way. Coffey must also recognise and seek to rectify the way the cost of living crisis will impact health outcomes: recent reports of plans to set up ‘warm banks’ with food and heating in NHS centres risk creating dystopian images.
Articulating a distinctive policy from her predecessors is also a challenge. The flurry of health secretaries over the last two years has produced plenty of new announcements but little decisive action. The first signs are not promising, as recent reports suggest that one of her headline announcements will be plans to cut four-hour A&E waiting times. Although this would be an excellent policy outcome, sadly this four-hour target has not been met since 2015. Framing success in such a manner is high risk.
Equally, Thursday’s announcement would benefit from triaging. Chucking money at the NHS is not popular among Tory voters with seven in ten noting their dissatisfaction with the NHS stems from a perception of money wasting. Some ranking system amongst Coffey’s ABCDs would allow her to flex her often noted fastidiousness and provide a soothing sense of strategy to jumpy Tory voters fearful of overspending.
The Tories have rarely found communicating about the NHS easy. Record investments in healthcare have not matched increasing demand and have failed to allay suspicion of the party’s motives. Tomorrow the party gets another opportunity. Two-thirds of the country have not heard of Thérèse Coffey and first impressions count.