Steve Barclay dispels image of ‘zombie’ health department

·6 min read
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care photographed on roof terrace - Jamie Lorriman for The Telegraph
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care photographed on roof terrace - Jamie Lorriman for The Telegraph

If Boris Johnson were to ever return to Downing Street, you could put safe money on the fact that Steve Barclay would be in his Cabinet.

The new Health Secretary has been an ever-present in the Prime Minister’s top team, enjoying a meteoric rise since the 2019 general election win.

He is known as one of the PM’s most loyal lieutenants, a member of the Praetorian Guard who hunkered down with him in Number 10 as the walls closed in.

As we sit down in his top floor office at the Department of Health, it is clear he harbours great admiration for the man who will soon no longer be his boss.

And, as someone who knows what makes Mr Johnson tick better than almost anyone, it is telling that he won’t rule out the most extraordinary of political comebacks.

“The pace of politics seems to have sped up and there is huge amounts of unpredictability,” he says when asked about the rumours that are the talk of SW1.

“So I think it’s always dangerous to try and second guess what the future will bring,” he adds cryptically, before launching into an impassioned defence of the Prime Minister’s record.

“What I do know, having worked very closely with the Prime Minister, is the strategic focus he has, which he really demonstrated on Ukraine.

“He very much, together with the Defence Secretary, led the thinking and challenged some of the thinking internally around our response, and built an extremely strong relationship with President Zelensky and showed real leadership on that issue.

“Likewise, he did in terms of driving the fastest vaccine roll-out, working with NHS colleagues and the vaccines taskforce.

“So in a number of areas he’s shown real leadership and obviously has great talents which I hope will contribute to society in different ways.”

Steve Barclay - Jamie Lorriman for The Telegraph
Steve Barclay - Jamie Lorriman for The Telegraph

I suggest that it sounds very much as though he believes that there is still a big role for Mr Johnson to play in the future of politics in this country.

“What I’m saying is the Prime Minister has huge skills which I’ve seen first hand. What he chooses to do is an issue in terms of time and how things unfold.

“But, you know, I had the privilege to work very closely with him and saw his great skills as a communicator, the strategic direction he gave on big challenges.

“As we’ve said a number of times, he got the big calls right and that shows many of the skills he brought to the role.”

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, the two Tory leadership candidates, have both said they would not have the Prime Minister in their Cabinet if they win the keys to Number 10.

James Duddridge, Mr Johnson’s loyal parliamentary private secretary, insisted last month his boss has no intention of quitting as an MP and will stand at the next election.

Whispers already abound in the corridors of Westminster that the Prime Minister is eyeing up a move from his Uxbridge constituency, a target for Labour, to a safer seat.

Unlike many of Mr Johnson’s allies, the Health Secretary is now backing Mr Sunak and not Ms Truss for the Tory leadership.

He explains that is a very personal decision down to the relationship he built up with the former chancellor when he was his deputy at the Treasury.

We are sitting at a large oval conference table in his office, which boasts a large glass wall and terrace with spectacular views over Westminster.

It is a room that has hosted three occupants in the last four years, which has led some Westminster insiders to label the health job a poisoned chalice.

Mr Barclay doesn’t appear daunted by that record, nor does he show any inclination to act as a caretaker minister until the next prime minister is crowned on September 5.

He insists there is no time for sitting on hands given the “serious challenges” the NHS will face this winter from seasonal flu, Covid and the fallout from the cost of living crisis.

His plan to help the service through the winter is to “significantly increase” overseas recruitment of social workers, which he readily acknowledges involves a “political risk”.

But he is adamant that unless decisive action is taken now, before the Tory leadership contest concludes, it will be “too late” to save hospitals from an emergency situation.

‘More data engineers’

Mr Barclay also has ambitious ideas for the longer term to improve health provision in what will be seen as a pitch to the next Tory leader to keep him in the job.

He is passionate about using technology and data to take pressure off surgeries and A&E and says doing so could rid the service of layers of middle-management bureaucracy.

“Not everything a GP is currently being asked to do needs to be done by a GP,” he says.

For example, some routine appointments such as those to measure blood pressure could be carried out by pharmacists and booked on the NHS app.

One of his first acts as Health Secretary was to order a “digital mapping” exercise of the service’s workforce to root out where efficiency savings can be made.

“There’s significant scope to reduce non-front-line clinical staff by addressing areas of duplication,” he insists.

“It’s not just a smaller workforce, but partly a different skill set of the workforce.

“In short, more data engineers, software engineers and fewer people filling out spreadsheets and communicating in emails and traditional ways.”

Sunak and Truss on the NHS

I move on to what the two candidates to take over from Mr Johnson have been promising to do with the NHS if they prevail in the vote of Tory members.

He is more circumspect than Ms Truss – who has promised never to reintroduce a Covid lockdown – on whether restrictions may be needed again this winter.

“We’ve got over 10,000 cases in hospital at the moment, around a third of those are people in hospital because of Covid,” he warns.

“So there’s still a significant number, notwithstanding it’s summer and infections tend to spread more clearly in winter.”

But he does express confidence that the most draconian curbs, such as shutting businesses and ordering people to stay at home, are now a thing of the past.

“We have the vaccine programme and we have a huge amount of knowledge, so we’re in a very different situation to when a consideration of lockdowns was taking place.”

And on Mr Sunak’s proposal to fine people who miss medical appointments £10?

“If there’s missed appointments, it’s important to understand what the cause of that is and it’s good to shine a light on that,” he replies diplomatically.

He also expressed sympathy for the Foreign Secretary’s plan to reverse junk food taxes and the ban on buy-one-get-one-free offers.

“I think empowering people to make informed decisions is a much better position than dictating to them,” Mr Barclay insists.

I leave his office at well past 7pm, passing through a large room outside where banks of civil servants are still at their desks working.

The scene is an antidote to the caricature of a “zombie government” that Mr Barclay has been so keen to dispel during the preceding half-hour.

It would seem that at the Department of Health they know that winter is coming, and there is no time to lose.