UK puts 'Minister of Magic' in charge of health
Newly assigned Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (Reuters)
By Maria Cheng
He supports homeopathy, a practice that many experts liken to snake oil. He opposes late-term abortion, falling afoul of this mostly pro-choice nation. During the London Olympics, he offended many Britons with a jab at the cherished National Health Service.
This is Jeremy Hunt - Britain's new health minister. He's only been in his job since Tuesday, but already some experts fret that his controversial views and general knack for inviting scandal could sow confusion in an already fragile health system.
Hunt's personal beliefs shouldn't influence policy because his job will mostly be to implement reforms that have already been agreed. Still, British media slammed Hunt's appointment, mainly basing their criticism on his support of homeopathy. The Telegraph newspaper headline read: "Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary: Are you kidding?" The magazine New Scientist labelled him "the new minister for magic".
And medical views aside, the 45-year-old Conservative ally of Prime Minister David Cameron has already developed an image as a magnet for controversy - notably during his just-completed stint as minister for media, culture and sport.
In that job, he was criticised for maintaining close ties to Rupert Murdoch even as a phone hacking scandal engulfed the media tycoon. Opposition lawmakers said Hunt, whose office had jurisdiction over Murdoch's ambitions to take over a TV station, should face a government inquiry. Hunt's adviser Adam Smith resigned after the contacts between Murdoch's News Corp. and the minister's office were disclosed.
Some had expected Hunt to be demoted after the scandal. But in his first major Cabinet shakeup, Cameron gave Hunt another high-profile job instead.
In announcing the Cabinet changes, Cameron said ministers would be expected to focus on implementing policies that have already been approved in Parliament, meaning that Hunt will likely be on a short leash.
Hunt allies defended the selection.
"Jeremy Hunt is perfectly well-qualified to do the job," said Stephen Dorrell, a Conservative Party member of Parliament and chair of Parliament's Health Select Committee. "He understands the concerns people have, he's an excellent communicator and he will focus on making sure the government delivers on its objectives."
Dorrell, who was health secretary between 1995 and 1997, said it was unfair to criticise Hunt for signing a Parliamentary motion five years ago in support of homeopathy. "I think if you dig far back enough into everybody's history, you can always find something like that," he said, rejecting fears that government policy on homeopathy would change.
Hunt joined Parliament in 2005 after setting up an educational publishing company and a charity helping AIDS orphans in Africa. He inherits the health portfolio at a time of radical restructuring in the National Health Service. His predecessor introduced a new health bill opposed by every major medical group but was ultimately approved by Parliament. The changes will axe about 20,000 jobs while transferring greater powers to clinics.
Hunt's most recent gaffe was questioning whether the country's health service, the NHS, deserved to get a tribute in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Cameron reportedly overruled him.
In 2005, Hunt co-authored a book that concluded that the NHS was no longer relevant and it should no longer be run by the government.
Scientists are more worried about his backing for homeopathy.
"This is a jump back into the last century," said Edzard Ernst, an emeritus professor at Exeter University. "We need someone who believes in science and evidence for a health secretary, and that is not compatible with believing in homeopathy.
"This is a bad omen for things to come."
Many scientists view homeopathy as modern day quack medicine. It relies on highly diluted drugs made from natural ingredients. The US government has stopped paying for studies of homeopathic treatments, saying there's little evidence any of them work. A government website notes homeopathy is based on concepts that are inconsistent with the fundamentals of chemistry and physics.
In 2007, Hunt signed a motion welcoming the "positive contribution made to the health of the nation" by homeopathy and called for the government to actively support it. In response to a constituent who pointed out that homeopathy doesn't work, Hunt replied it should be available because thousands of people use it and the government insists health care should be "patient-led".
Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, Britain's leading independent scientific academy, said he was hopeful Hunt might change his mind about homeopathy. "It could be that in his new position he will read more thoroughly," he said. "If we are to make the case for evidence-based medicine, then there shouldn't be any homeopathy."
A 2010 report from a House of Commons science committee recommended the government stop paying for homeopathy. But the department of health leaves decisions on treatments to hospitals, meaning the government continues to pay for some homeopathic remedies. Homeopathic treatments account for less than one percent of Britain's drug costs.
Experts say that homeopathic remedies are mostly prescribed for people with chronic problems like pain or fatigue, where the treatments may seem to work because of the placebo effect. Practitioners who use alternative remedies often spend more time listening to patients, which can help them feel better.
The questionable treatments are backed by celebrities including Paul McCartney, David Beckham and Jude Law. In 2005, Prince Charles commissioned a report on homeopathy which said treating patients with homeopathy could cut the nation's drugs bill in half. Experts said that would put patients' lives in danger.
Women's groups are concerned about Hunt's track record on abortion. In 2008, Hunt voted for the limit to be halved to 12 weeks from the current 24. The motion was thrown out, but experts say Hunt's position was troubling.
"About 80 percent of the country is pro-choice but unfortunately Jeremy Hunt is not one of those people," Kate Smurthwaite, vice-chair of Abortion Rights, an advocacy group. "We hold out hope he's going to take the job seriously and put his personal views aside to get on with the job, but to have him as health minister is incredibly worrying."