SOUTH West Surrey MP Jeremy Hunt has spoken of his mission “to make the care of our wonderful NHS the safest and highest quality care in the world” in a talk at the Haslemere Festival.

Mr Hunt appeared at the Haslemere Museum last Friday for a discussion on the future of the NHS, wearing a face mask made by the jailed British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

He spoke for about 25 minutes on his own hopes for the organisation he oversaw for almost six years as health secretary and presently as chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, followed by a question-and-answer session.

It was the MP’s first appearance at the festival since announcing his Tory leadership bid in 2019, as well as his first public showing since the beginning of the pandemic, and he congratulated festival director Hamish Donaldson on the “amazing achievement of getting the festival off the ground”.

He began by sharing the story of a young couple from Devon, Scott and Sue Morrish, whose son Sam died from sepsis aged just three years old, and which he said had “really shaped his time as health secretary”.

“It happened when I had just been health secretary for a few months and I was still getting my bearings,” Mr Hunt said. “And what they really came to speak about was not the fact Sam had died, but the fact that when they had tried to raise concerns about his death, no one wanted to talk to them about it.

“They said the shutters came down, no-one was prepared to meet them and discuss it.

“Two independent investigations concluded that ultimately Sam was failed by every NHS body he came into contact with and it was a death that was avoidable. But it took them six years of fighting before that was established and I was obviously very shocked.

“It’s very important if we really do want the NHS to be the best in the world, the best it can be, that we don’t pretend that bad things don’t occasionally happen. Because of course, you can always learn from them.”

Mr Hunt added he was also shocked to learn that in health care, around ten per cent of patients are harmed by mistakes, while just under four per cent of hospital deaths are estimated to have had a 50 per cent or more chance of being preventable.

“If you do the maths, that works out at about 150 preventable deaths a week,” he added. “But scary though that number is, it is not unique to the NHS, and would be the same in France or Germany or New Zealand or America.

“It’s the way modern health care is – it is not a precise science and sometimes we don’t get things right.

“But because I don’t come from a health care background, I was very struck by how different that is to other industries.

“So I started thinking, what is it we can do to bring down the number of preventable deaths?

“And I realised the heart of the problem is a cultural problem, which is we actually treat doctors and nurses very, very badly.

“These are good people who want to do nothing more than be open and transparent about what happened and learn from mistakes.

“But what our system does is it penalises them. And if they if they’re open about a mistake, they risk being fired or being hauled in front of the General Medical Council. They could be struck off, their career could be over.

“What we don’t do in medicine is distinguish clearly enough between the totally egregious mistakes that no-one should be given any latitude for – turning up to work drunk or something like that – and ordinary human mistakes that all of us make.

“What we have to do is to create a supportive environment that makes it easy for them to talk openly, even when they think they’ve made a terrible mistake which has led to a tragedy so we can learn from that mistake.

“That became my big mission when I was health secretary. Step one, transparency and openness. Step two, support doctors, nurses, and midwives and everyone else, so there’s a true learning culture.

“And that was why I put my hat in the ring to be chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, because although I made some improvements I was very proud of, such as introducing the Ofsted-style system for hospitals, I realised there was still a lot to do.

“So that’s really what I want my life’s work to be when it comes to healthcare: to transform the practices of modern healthcare here and across the world to deal with those very deep cultural issues.”