Jan 29, 2023
Sunak Turns Attentions to Fixing UK’s NHS After Zahawi Debacle
(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak will attempt to get his UK premiership back on track Monday with a plan to overhaul the crisis-hit National Health Service, after dramatically firing Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi over his tax affairs following weeks of damaging headlines.
The £1 billion blueprint promises 800 new ambulances — including 100 specialist mental health vehicles — 5,000 more hospital beds, and longer hours for urgent care centers, NHS England said in an emailed statement. Cutting NHS waiting times is one of Sunak’s five “priorities” ahead of a general election due by January 2025.
Yet just as Sunak tried to focus attention on policy, questions rumbled on about his judgment in appointing Zahawi to the Cabinet and his failure to fire him earlier. The premier will mark 100 days in office this week — but his short tenure has been dogged by a series of allegations about his senior ministers as well as multiple U-turns on policy to appease his Tory backbenchers.
Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab is also under internal investigation for claims that he bullied civil servants, with a conclusion due within weeks. It means the Conservative brand could soon be further tainted, as Sunak tries to wrestle the agenda back onto easing pressures on Britain’s beleaguered public services amid national polling that puts Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour party at least 20 points ahead.
Meanwhile, Sunak faces ongoing industrial action across multiple sectors, with over half a million workers poised to walk out over pay on Wednesday. They include teachers in England and Wales — with widespread disruption to schools expected — as well as civil servants, train drivers, and university staff. That will be followed by the biggest NHS walkout so far in this dispute, when ambulance workers join nurses on strike on Feb. 6.
Sunak’s office announced Zahawi had been fired as Tory chairman on Sunday morning after a short inquiry by the premier’s ethics adviser Laurie Magnus concluded there had been a “serious” breach of the ministerial code.
Zahawi — who served briefly as Chancellor of the Exchequer last summer — acknowledged last week he’d been “careless” with his taxes and had settled a retroactive multi-million pound bill with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
In a highly critical letter to Sunak, Magnus said Zahawi had both failed to properly declare as a minister that he was being investigated by HMRC and that he had subsequently settled. The ethics chief also blasted Zahawi for claiming that news stories about his tax affairs were “smears” in July 2022 and failing to correct the record until this month.
Zahawi had “shown insufficient regard for the general principles of the ministerial code,” Magnus told Sunak, particularly the requirements “to be honest, open and an exemplary leader through his own behaviour.”
Sunak had initially stood by Zahawi, telling the Commons this month Zahawi had “addressed this matter in full.” He then ordered the inquiry after Zahawi issued his statement on Jan. 14.
Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds said Sunak needed to be explicit about what he knew about Zahawi’s tax affairs when he appointed him. “Nadhim Zahawi should have been sacked when this murky affair first surfaced,” she said in a statement. “The fact that he has been able to spend weeks dodging questions shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is.”
Zahawi is the second Cabinet minister to exit Sunak’s three-month-old government over ethics infringements. Gavin Williamson quit as a minister without portfolio in October after allegations he bullied staff.
Former Tory chancellor George Osborne told Channel 4’s Andrew Neil Show on Sunday that Sunak was being “pulled down by a series of scandals which do not directly involve him” and were “hangovers” of the era of his controversial predecessor Boris Johnson.
Comparing Sunak to former Conservative premier John Major — who was defeated by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997 after a string of Tory scandals, Osborne said: “It’s still ‘we’ll see’ with Rishi Sunak, but he knows that as each week passes, as each new scandal unfolds, the window for action gets smaller and smaller.”
Sunak faces a new headache in the coming weeks as the House of Commons privileges committee prepares to investigate whether Johnson deliberately lied to Parliament over parties in Downing Street during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Johnson is under pressure over his links to BBC Chairman Richard Sharp, after the Sunday Times reported that the former premier was told to stop asking Sharp for financial advice. Both men deny the claims.
Sunak and his allies will hope that by sacking Zahawi, more attention will be paid to the government’s new plan to improve the NHS — which has suffered record delays in ambulance response times and waits for emergency treatment.
The two-year plan aims to free up space in hospitals and speed up discharge for those who are medically fit to leave, by ensuring there is more care and rehabilitation available in the community. That includes the extension of “virtual wards” where patients are monitored in their own homes.
Sunak said in a statement: “It will take time to get there but our plan will cut long waiting times by increasing the number of ambulances, staff and beds — stopping the bottlenecks outside A&E [Accident and Emergency] and making sure patients are seen and discharged quickly.”
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