Nursing Times broke the story last week that the Westminster government was willing to at least consider introducing safe staffing laws.
The health and social care secretary stated that he would “look at” the possibility of introducing safe nurse staffing legislation, the first time I think a minister in England has openly said such a thing.
Mr Hancock said he would consider the idea during a question-and-answer session with members of the Royal College of Nursing at a summit on tackling workplace violence.
As many readers will know, Wales became the first country in Europe to implement a law on safe staffing in the NHS earlier this year.
“Of course, saying you will consider something is different to announcing new policy”
A similar move is being considered in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party seems keen on creating clear water between Scotland and England on nursing policy – note student bursaries.
Of course, saying you will consider something is different to announcing new policy, and Mr Hancock did include caveats about whether legislation was the best way to tackle the nurse shortage.
But regardless of whether you support the idea of enshrining safe staffing in law or not, it should be viewed as positive that the issue is being, or will be, looked at.
Mr Hancock seems to be quickly developing a track record for attention-grabbing pronouncement since he took up his new post over the summer. Someone in senior NHS circles recently described it to me as a “shooting from the hip” approach. I bet the Department of Health and Social Care’s communications team absolutely love it – or not!
Just this weekend Mr Hancock suggested ministers were considering a new levy targeted at the over-40s to help solve the social care funding crisis.
He told The Telegraph he was “attracted to” a cross-party plan for a compulsory premium deducted from the earnings of the middle-aged and over-65s to fund the cost of their care in later life.
And earlier this month he got a few people exercised – emotionally rather than physically – with a speech in which he urged the public to take greater responsibility for their own health.
“I must say that I am finding the minister’s approach rather refreshing”
The day after, while speaking at an event hosted by the King’s Fund think tank, he backed more “social prescribing” for those with mental health conditions – activities such as dancing, music and arts classes – as an alternative to “popping pills”.
Mr Hancock has also made positive noises about tackling violence against NHS staff, listening to their views and, because it’s his area of interest, on the need to use technology more effectively.
I must say that I am finding the minister’s approach rather refreshing – and not just because his pronouncements generate eye-catching headlines for Nursing Times. The fact that such issues are being considered is surely better than them being dismissed out of hand.
Of course, talk is easy – politicians are after all generally quite good at it. We will only really to be able to start holding Mr Hancock to account when he has been in post long enough for us to know whether his pronouncements turn into actions – though next month we will also have the NHS long-term plan to leaf through.
Until then, long may the shooting from the hip continue. The more bullets fired, the more policies might result and the more chance of sorting out some NHS problems. Here’s hoping.