This piece has been co-published with Open Democracy
On Friday Jeremy Hunt made a significant error of judgement in releasing advance details of his upcoming speech to the Kings Fund to the media. Hunt implied that 6000 hospital deaths each year were unnecessary and related to consultants opting out of weekend work under the new contract.
But unfortunately for Hunt it turned out that there is no evidence to support these allegations. To many doctors, it appeared instead to be a politically motivated attempt to undermine the BMA in its negotiations about the new consultant contract – and one that misfired badly.
Hospital doctors were incensed. I wrote a blog pointing out that these sorts of political shenanigans are damaging the NHS, demoralising staff and frightening patients. I suggested he should apologise and maybe even consider resigning. Others set up a social media campaign with the tag #ImInWorkJeremy using Facebook and Twitter. On Saturday morning there was an explosion of activity. The hash tag trended on Twitter all day with thousands of hospital workers posting photos and comments from work. The story made the on line national newspapers and was mentioned on the Andrew Marr Show though it never made the national news bulletins.
My blog was read by over 30,000 people in the first 2 days.
The mood was predominantly pro NHS though there were a significant minority of posts calling for Mr Hunt to resign. An e-petition calling for a debate of no confidence in the Health Secretary was started on Monday morning and by midnight there were 50,000 signatures. I have no doubt that it will reach the 100,000 names needed to secure a parliamentary debate very quickly.
Jeremy Hunt probably had an uncomfortable weekend and kept his head down. A rather weak tweet, which looked far too “Twittery” to have been written by him personally, just added fuel to the fire, reading as if it was accusing doctors of being insufficiently professional.
Hunt tweeted a picture posing in scrubs with a group of medical staff. Unfortunately this backfired further – the picture contained patient information on a board in the background and clearly breached hospital confidentiality rules. It was quickly taken down but gave people the opportunity to modify it and subject him to further ridicule.
The #ImInWorkJeremy group released a press statement setting out how their aim was to ‘raise morale of NHS staff’ and ‘show the public not to be alarmed by the claims of Mr Hunt’.
At times the Twitter storml felt a little uncomfortable – the enraged crowd out of control and baying for blood. At the end of the day all social media activity will inevitably fizzle out. Time will tell what will be the long-term consequences of this social media frenzy for the NHS or for Mr Hunt. Some will argue that this unregulated outpouring of emotion is the modern equivalent of the medieval lynch mob. People can hide in the crowd and let rip without fear of personal consequences. It is transient, ephemeral and ultimately no more than a minor irritation for a die-hardened politician.
But I disagree.
You do not get this sort of response without a real issue and strong majority public opinion. No clique or minority pressure group could orchestrate this response if the underlying passion was not there. People feel strongly about the NHS. They feel it is threatened and they are worried. Social media campaigns of this magnitude really do express the voice of the people.
The public response this weekend has clearly demonstrated to Mr Hunt and the government that a victory in an election is not a mandate to fly in the face of public opinion. It was overconfidence bordering on arrogance that led to his unfortunate lapse of judgement. The events of this weekend may be a learning experience for him, influencing his attitude towards NHS staff and patients.
It is for this reason that I want to see a parliamentary debate on his performance and have spent time pushing people to sign the petition, but I do not necessarily want to see him sacked. There is always the strong possibility that some one less clumsy, less chastened and more charismatic will take his place – which could be a problem if they are committed to following the present government approach to the NHS. Let him keep his job – but know that the public is on to him. He needs to consider very carefully how he approached the NHS in future. He needs to know that he only has a job because we allow it.
And so to answer my own question
Social media is here to stay. You cannot turn it off and it is growing in strength. The events of this weekend will seem relatively small beer compared with what is to come. Politicians mark my words – this IS the start of a new democracy.