In any other year, Jeremy Hunt would be a worried man. But as the government concentrates all its resources on Brexit, no one seems to much mind that the NHS is near enough on its knees. Who cares that hundreds of people may be waiting on trolleys in corridors on the off chance they might get to see a doctor before Christmas, when the cabinet is just now getting round to agreeing that it wants a bespoke trade deal with the EU that exists only in its own fantasies?
Not the health secretary, judging by his chilled-out demeanour at his last departmental questions of the year. If he is bothered then he is putting on a good act of not showing it. He smiles, he flutters his eyelids. The ideal bedside manner of a friendly GP. It’s just a pity he’s chosen Harold Shipman as his role model. Killing the NHS with a lethal cocktail of incompetence and ideology.
The health service is now in such a pitiful state that even Tory MPs no longer bother trying to pretend otherwise. Greg Knight got the ball rolling by asking why GP and local hospital services were in such a mess, after which several others piled in with horror stories from their own constituencies. Hunt nodded. Best caring face. It was all terrible, he said. But everything was going to be OK. Just so long as you counted death as one of your OK options.
Why can’t we keep our GPs, asked Conservative Maria Miller. Jeremy – we could call him Jeremy if we liked – had an explanation. It was because doctors were altruistic by nature. And since he had turned general practice into such a desirable job – basically a year-long holiday on sick pay – GPs were leaving in droves to make way for others to get a piece of the action. The fly in the ointment was that doctors were reluctant to fill the vacancies because they didn’t believe they were deserving enough to become GPs.
Funding was dealt with in a similar manner. Everyone should stop moaning about the fact that the NHS was basically broke and be a bit more grateful for the £2.8bn that the chancellor had doled out in the budget. OK, so it wasn’t nearly enough, but no one should begrudge a sticking plaster. Besides, it was all really the fault of the population for living too long. If people had the grace to die when they were supposed to, rather than hanging around for years sponging off the NHS and using up valuable resources, then there would be more than enough money to go round.
A few Tory MPs reluctantly thanked Jeremy for having given their local healthcare trust an extra 35p to tide them over during the winter, but the shadow health minister Justin Madders was not impressed. The NHS just didn’t have the money it needed, he said, and Hunt would be better off trying to fix that problem than having Twitter spats with celebrities who turned out to know rather more about the NHS than he did.
Jeremy was indignant. He’d fight for the right of a minister to make a fool of himself on social media. And as for money, that was just a matter of perspective. The difference between Labour and the Tories was that they would find the money for the NHS by raising corporation taxes, while he would raise it by creating new jobs.
A silence lingered over the Commons as everyone absorbed that piece of idiocy. Not content with switching the NHS on to life support, Jeremy had put himself on an irony bypass. The health secretary has created thousands of jobs by driving people out of the NHS. The problem isn’t the lack of vacancies, it’s the shortage of people willing to work for next to nothing to fill them.
The longer the session went on, the more carefree Jeremy became. Social care? A total mess. Mental health services? A total mess. And so what if he had fiddled the figures to make it look like there were more people working in that sector? Hospital admissions for malnutrition going up? Stop talking Britain down. That was a success story as doctors were now so much better at diagnosing people with malnutrition. In the past, every thin person was just assumed to have cancer and given chemotherapy.
On Brexit, all he could say after shooting himself up with liquid valium was that he wanted “a deep and special partnership with the EU”. A small comfort. And a sign of things to come. The NHS is crying out for a deep and special relationship with Hunt. But it is having to settle for a shallow and decidedly ordinary one.
• John Crace’s new book, I, Maybot, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy for £6.99, saving £3, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders minimum p&p of £1.99.