Whatever the reality of their policies, health ministers often feel they have to tell doctors and nurses how admired and respected they are. Jeremy Hunt told GPonline in 2013 that he was GPs’ ‘biggest fan’. GPs could be forgiven a degree of cynicism whenever the next minister tells them how appreciated they are.
But Alistair Burt - minister for primary care since May 2015 - has a good claim to understanding GPs. ‘I am very lucky,' he tells GPonline. ‘I am the son of a GP.’ Perched on the edge of a bright red sofa in his office at the DH's Whitehall HQ, the minister is keen to talk about his father. ‘I saw a man who went out in the middle of night to see his patients, worked long hours; devoted to medicine.
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‘After he finished surgeries he was secretary of the local BMA, [and] became chairman of the family practitioner committee. So, he devoted his life to medicine.’
The former junior foreign office minister took over from Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb as minister of state for community and social care after the Tories won a majority in May. He was handed the primary care brief previously held by Conservative peer Earl Howe.
Mr Burt, who grew up in Bury, Greater Manchester, is a former solicitor first elected to parliament in 1983. Currently representing north east Bedfordshire, his previous ministerial roles have included positions in the department of social security, and local government.
My dad gave me a genuine love for what general practice could and should be, and that I certainly carry with me."
‘I liked his job,' he says of his father who retired at the age of 70 after a career spanning the 1950s to the 1990s. ‘But because I couldn't stand the sight of blood and wasn't good at science, medicine was never for me.’ What the minister learned from his father’s profession, he says, was ‘a sense of commitment to people’.
‘In a sense, being a member of parliament has similarities to being GP. You cover a lot of people, you see a lot of people in different circumstances, so I feel, in a sense, that was passed down.’
GP working hours
But, Mr Burt says, he doesn’t have a rose-tinted view of the profession. He watched the damaging effects of long hours and night working, and saw up-close the necessary evolution of the service over the best part of 30 years.
‘My dad gave me, I think, a genuine love for what general practice could and should be, and that I certainly carry with me,' he says.
Since his appointment Mr Burt has been fairly low-profile. But he has been out meeting the doctors and others who make the health and care service. ‘It is very tough,' he says, recalling the message he hears from GPs. ‘They are illustrating a life which is full of very serious challenges. It is busy. It seems relentless. And they worry where general practice is going.’ But he has also seen innovative responses to the pressures.
Mr Burt’s father built one of the first group practices in north-west England, he says, sharing back office functions and providing more premises space. ‘I saw the development of general practice in those years,' he says. And today, in the innovative new approaches to care delivery being developed by GPs in programmes such as the prime minister’s access fund, he sees ‘people prepared to meet the challenges; work for something different'. 'And I much appreciate that,’ he says.
Photo: Wilde Fry