Sajid Javid: tax rise could be ‘practical and obvious’ solution to social care crisis

There are two items noticeably absent from the Health Secretary’s now-infamous office overlooking Westminster – other than Matt Hancock.

The first is the security camera that led to the demise of Sajid Javid’s predecessor, and the second is an arresting Damien Hirst portrait of the Queen, which featured in the background of many of Mr Hancock’s broadcasts during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Within a fortnight of Mr Javid’s appointment, the former Chancellor had arranged for the camera to be removed without a trace of its former presence, and the Hirst portrait replaced with an 1890s oil painting of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

As the new broom in the Department of Health, Mr Javid, 51, also insists that he will finally address one of the thorniest political issues of the last decade – the future of social care.

"We’ve just got to have a proper, long-term sustainable settlement for social care, and I think it’s fair to say that we as a Government recognise that," he tells The Telegraph in his first newspaper interview since becoming Health Secretary.

"That’s why we had a manifesto commitment that we will provide just that and we’re absolutely 100 per cent going to do that."

As a former Chancellor, Mr Javid knows only too well that vastly expensive schemes invariably involve significant controversy over whether or how they will be funded by the taxpayer.

But the necessity of finding a long-term system to fund social care appears to have led him to the conclusion that a new tax may be the "obvious" solution, despite describing himself as "a low-tax Conservative".

Given his low-tax credentials, would Mr Javid be ideologically opposed to a tax to raise the money needed to fund a new system?

"In all my time in politics I haven’t let ideology blind me to doing the practical and the obvious. I think that’s as far as I’d go," he says.

He adds: "It’s about getting the job done, sticking to your values and principles of course, but I’ve got to deal with the world as it is, and get a job done, and I’ll work with my colleagues to find the best way to do that."

Another funding problem centres on pay for NHS staff. The Government has been heavily criticised for saying earlier this year that it could only afford a 1 per cent rise for the next financial year – a figure seen as risible by many medics.

Mr Javid insists that the final settlement must be "fair", adding: "I know it will be … Pay is very important. Of course it is. I think the people, whether it’s doctors, nurses, everyone working in the NHS … the whole country owes them a huge debt for what they’ve done to help us get through what is one of the most difficult times the country has faced since the Second World War."

Mr Javid’s personal experience of the NHS began as a child when he accompanied his mother, Zubaida, to hospitals.

Mrs Javid had emigrated from Pakistan in the 1960s and took a decade to learn English, so the future MP acted as her interpreter.

"I started learning about the NHS from a very early age, because I wasn’t just going when I wasn’t well but when my mum was unwell. When she was pregnant with my siblings, I’d go with her to the hospital for the check-ups. I was very young, but it’s the first time I can remember seeing hospitals."

More recently, Mrs Javid, now in her 70s, fell ill during the pandemic and was sent to a private hospital where "she got seen through the NHS, but the work was actually carried out by an independent provider".

Similarly, one of Mr Javid’s three daughters had to see a doctor during the same period and was offered a virtual appointment.

"She said it was brilliant and she’d happily do that every time," Mr Javid says.

Both experiences have influenced the approach he now intends to take to clearing the monumental backlog caused by Covid-19 and the restrictions imposed to tackle the virus.

The department’s modelling has found that the record number of 5.3 million people waiting to receive routine hospital treatment could rise to a staggering 13 million.

"If paying private hospitals to carry on treating NHS patients can help to clear the backlog and ensure people can be seen a lot more quickly by the NHS paying for them to go to an independent provider, that’s fine with me," he says.

Likewise, while some patients "understandably" want to continue seeing their GP in person, "many" younger people would, like Mr Javid’s daughter, be happy to talk to a doctor via video conferencing apps such as Zoom.

"Let’s take advantage of that technology," he says.

A lot of the practicalities of clearing the backlog will be down to NHS England and its next chief executive.

The appointment process for Sir Simon Stevens’s replacement is underway and, while technically the decision is made by the NHS board, Mr Javid has a veto.

"A lot will depend on who I choose next for the new CEO," he says. "I haven’t made up my mind. But that matters a lot. You’ve got to get the right leader as the head of NHS England itself. That’s a good opportunity given that we’re at this reset moment with the challenges that we face."

He insists that he is "not giving anything away" when asked if it is time for the body to be led by a woman for the first time. Amanda Pritchard, its chief operating officer, is a frontrunner for the role.

Mr Javid wants to make Britain "the world leader" in understanding the impact of long Covid, the condition responsible for debilitating effects on many of those who have been infected with the virus.

"I know people, friends, with long Covid, and it’s a horrible condition to have … I want to invest a lot more time and effort in understanding it, I want Britain to be the world leader in understanding this problem because it’s going to be around for a while, potentially."

Credit: Jessica Taylor/AP

On Monday, Boris Johnson is expected to confirm plans to lift mask-wearing and social distancing laws from July 19, and Mr Javid, pictured above in the House of Commons, is "confident" that the proposals announced last week remain on track.

Despite the changes, he insists that people in crowded enclosed spaces should continue to wear masks, "and if someone is not doing that, frankly, they’re just being irresponsible, they’re not playing their role as a responsible citizen".

Mr Javid confirms that he is taking "a fresh look at how the test and trace system" and its isolation requirement, amid concerns that the rise in infection rates will lead to more than a million people isolating at any one time.

"What we can do differently is take advantage of the vaccine," he says.

NHS officials have warned that increasing numbers of staff are having to isolate as infection rates rise.  

"If NHS staff … are double vaccinated, we can take a different approach, if necessary," he says. "I think there’s every reason to think that we can take a more proportionate and balanced approach to the isolation policy, particularly when it comes to NHS staff."

When Mr Javid was offered his new job by Mr Johnson, he "accepted on the spot", he says.

"I did it for my love of the NHS, my love of the country. The NHS looked after me as a kid, it looked after my children, it looked after my dad in his final days."

But, two weeks into the role, he admits, "I’ve got to say for me it’s the most daunting and the biggest set of challenges I’ve ever faced in my life. I say that having run the Home Office, with all the challenges that it has, and the Treasury.

"I’ve never seen anything like this. But I’m up for it, I’m more than up for it."

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