Victoria Atkins: A closer look at the new Health Secretary and the challenges ahead

The Louth & Horncastle MP turned Secretary of State for Health and Social Care
James Turner

James Turner

Victoria Atkins: A closer look at the new Health Secretary and the challenges ahead

Victoria Atkins, MP for Louth & Horncastle, has ascended to one of the government's key positions as the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. This significant promotion comes amidst a whirlwind government reshuffle that saw major changes, including the ousting of Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the surprising political comeback of former Prime Minister David Cameron as Foreign Secretary.

Atkins' rise in politics is not just a tale of ambition but also of personal triumph. Her own battle with type 1 diabetes has been a driving force behind her career, fuelling her passion and commitment to health-related causes. Her advocacy work with Diabetes UK, pushing for enhanced education and awareness, is a testament to her dedication to health issues.

Louth and Horncastle MP Victoria Atkins

Previously holding the position of Financial Secretary to the Treasury since October 2022, Atkins has a history of influential roles. She served as Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice and Minister for Afghan Resettlement, showcasing her versatility and capability in handling diverse governmental responsibilities.

Now, at the helm of the Health and Social Care department, Atkins faces the formidable task of steering the financial and operational aspects of the NHS, along with managing the intricacies of social care policy.

Her appointment marks a new chapter in her political journey, one that holds the promise of impactful leadership in a sector vital to the nation's wellbeing.

Following her appointment, Victoria promptly addressed the current challenges in the health sector, including the anticipated winter demand and the ongoing strikes by junior doctors and consultants.

"I am honoured to have been asked to serve as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care at this critical time," she wrote on social media.

"Our NHS matters to us all, and I look forward to working with NHS and social care colleagues to bolster services during what promises to be a very challenging winter, cut waiting lists and improve patient care.

"I am also determined to drive forward discussions with striking unions in order to end the ongoing industrial action which has caused so much disruption to patients."

Ongoing strikes

Junior doctors on strike outside Lincoln County Hospital, March 2023. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

While there have been no visible picket lines at Lincoln County Hospital in recent months, the broader UK health sector has faced notable unrest.

Junior doctors across the country have held 19 days of strikes since March, advocating for a pay increase. Consultants later joined the industrial action, culminating in the first-ever joint strike by both professions in the history of the NHS in September and October.

This latest wave of strikes has profoundly affected hospitals in Lincolnshire with over 1,200 appointments being rescheduled between October 2 and October 4. Amidst the walk-outs, hospitals operated with 'Christmas Day' staffing levels, focusing solely on emergency care. Consequently, the total number of appointments affected nationally this year has surpassed 1.1 million.

Industrial action is estimated to have cost the health service £1bn this year.

Despite her commitment to engage with the BMA to resolve the NHS strikes, Atkins was notably absent from a crucial healthcare conference just two days into her tenure.

Instead of attending in person, she opted to send a video message to the NHS Providers' annual conference in Liverpool. This event was one where her predecessor, Steve Barclay, was scheduled to speak.

In her message to the delegates, the newly appointed Health Secretary emphasised her intention to seek a 'fair and reasonable resolution' to the ongoing industrial action.

Winter is coming

Hospitals across Lincolnshire are bracing for a challenging winter season, contending with the impact of continued strikes, staff burnout, and an unyielding demand for care under severe funding limitations.

A recent survey has underscored these concerns, with 80% of healthcare leaders predicting a tougher winter than the last, and 95% expressing worry about the impact of these pressures.

However, United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust (ULHT) insisted it is proactively addressing these issues. A spokesperson explained: "At ULHT, this includes a programme to change the internal configuration of hospital beds, aiming to manage patient flow more effectively and reduce long waits in our emergency departments."

More than three-quarters of NHS trust leaders (76%) also anticipate facing a worse financial situation than last year.

These funding pressures are not only raising concerns about patient safety and the quality of care but are also impacting the trusts' abilities to enhance services in preparation for winter.

As a result, some trusts have been compelled to scale back their plans. Initiatives like increasing bed capacity, continuing recruitment efforts, and investing in community and mental health facilities are being curtailed or put on hold.

However, the government provided an update to the BBC, assuring that winter preparations are progressing as planned. They highlighted the opening of 10,000 'virtual' hospital beds and the addition of over 5,000 new permanent hospital beds, marking a 5% increase in bed capacity.

Who is Paul Kenward?

Aktins' appointment as Health Secretary has sparked interest from a number of national publications, particularly due to her marriage to Paul Kenward, Managing Director of British Sugar.

Despite concerns raised about potential conflicts of interest, the Louth & Horncastle MP has assured that her personal connections will not interfere with her professional responsibilities.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I am very, very independently minded," Ms Atkins told BBC Look North.<

"I voted enthusiastically for the sugar tax when that came before Parliament."

The issue of potential conflict of interest isn't new for Atkins. In 2018, as the acting drugs minister, she faced accusations of hypocrisy due to British Sugar's license to produce a non-psychoactive variant of the cannabis plant.

However, the Home Office clarified that Atkins had declared this interest and had voluntarily recused herself from any policy or decisions related to cannabis, including licensing.

Kenward's professional background extends beyond British Sugar. He has served as a director at various companies, including Pride Oils and Westmil Foods.

On a personal note, Paul Kenward and Victoria Atkins have a son named Monty, who is reportedly 11 years old.