Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham have clashed in the commons over how NHS chiefs have been told to consider the risk of media coverage before declaring a major incident.
NHS managers have been told by health officials to think about the possible “political and reputational damage” which could be caused by declaring a “major incident” in hospitals.
New NHS guidance, instructing trusts to follow a 17-step checklist before declaring a “major incident” in a hospital, has emerged.
In the first week of January 2015, at least 14 NHS trusts in England declared “major incidents” as waiting times rose to the worst on record.
Amid claims that hospitals are actually being put under pressure to hide the extent of the NHS winter crisis, Jeremy Hunt accused Labour of trying to “to spin [the matter] as part of their policy to weaponise the NHS.”
Accident & Emergency doctors have accused health officials of trying to “dampen down” media coverage of problems encountered by hospitals, by issuing guidance that makes it more difficult to go public about growing pressures.
The Health Secretary insisted that the guidance, issued by NHS England’s Birmingham, Solihull & the Black Country Area Team, was a local operational decision taken by NHS managers, with no pressure from central officials involved.
Mr Burnham highlighted NHS guidance, issued last year, which asks hospital managers to consider before declaring a major incident whether there is “political involvement or excessive media coverage”, a requirement to bolster public confidence or “a risk of reputational damage.”
Labour said that the guidance seemed “more about news management than patient safety”.
A spokesman for NHS England denied the guidelines were designed to deter hospitals from declaring a major incident. “This is not a note saying don’t call a ‘major incident’,” he said. “It is advice to them saying if they are going to declare a major incident here are some things that might help.”