8. How many accident and emergency departments he visited in an official capacity in winter 2012-13. (158873)
I regularly visit a range of services across the NHS. Since taking up post in September 2012, I have visited 28 NHS front-line services, including seven A and E departments.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that a freedom of information request to the Department of Health revealed that he did not visit an A and E unit until April 2013, a full six months after his appointment and despite a clear A and E crisis over the winter-spring period under his supervision?
As ever, the Labour party is being selective in its use of information. As I have said, I visited seven A and E departments, including over the Easter period when we had some severe A and E pressures that I wanted to investigate for myself. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about another thing that this Government have done that his Government never did: it is not just Ministers who are going out on to the front line; we have asked all our civil servants to go on to the front line for up to four weeks. I am extremely proud that my Department will be the first to connect with the front line in that way, and am even prouder of the response from my own civil servants, who embraced the scheme with great enthusiasm.
Could we have some accountability for the strategic planning of A and E services across London? Nine of them face closure and 28 ambulances were redirected to Lewisham, which the Secretary of State intends to downgrade. Without a strategic approach, how can patients be confident that their best interests are being served?
We do have a strategic approach, but we also have some very important safeguards that any big change in approach has to go through before it is implemented. That is why I asked for a report from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel on the plans for north-west London, and I will consider that report very carefully before I make any decision.
When considering issues relating to A and E closures, particularly the proposed closure of the A and E department at St Helier hospital, which serves my constituents, will the Secretary of State ensure that those who propose such plans make sure that there is also a costed plan for developing out-of-hospital care, which is an essential prerequisite for any changes to acute services?
I agree with my right hon. Friend on this issue. It is extremely important that all these plans take a holistic view both locally and nationally. That is why, in looking at how to resolve the A and E issues we have faced and the severe pressures last winter, we are looking not just at what happens inside A and E departments, but at primary care alternatives and the integration of social care services, which are all equally important.
Perhaps it took the Secretary of State so long to visit an A and E unit because he could not get in. In the midst of England’s A and E services experiencing their worst waiting times for a decade, the Secretary of State criticised hospitals for coasting. Does he regret waiting for six months before first visiting an A and E unit and finding out for himself what damage his policies were doing to the front line of the NHS? Hospital consultants, A and E consultants and patients look forward with interest to hearing his answer.
We will take no lessons on being connected with the front line from the party that missed 50 warning signs about what was happening at Mid Staffs. The hon. Gentleman cannot make the narrow point about how many A and Es I visited during a particular period without addressing the broad point about how connected Ministers in his party were when they were in power. They rejected 81 requests for a public inquiry because they did not know what was happening at Mid Staffs.