The former financial secretary to the Treasury takes up her first cabinet post, in the thick of negotiations with the British Medical Association over junior doctor strikes and ahead of what health leaders fear will be the worst winter on record for the NHS.
She replaces Steve Barclay, deemed as “divisive” by healthcare leaders, who was demoted from his post and instead appointed environment, food and rural affairs secretary.
Ms Atkins, the MP for Louth and Horncastle, has held several junior minister positions including minister of justice and minister for Afghan resettlement, between September 2021 and July 2022.
She resigned as justice minister under then prime minister Boris Johnson citing that “integrity, decency, respect and professionalism” had been “fractured” under his leadership.
In 2018, as drugs minister at the Home Office, she was accused of “hypocrisy on a grand scale” after it was revealed she had spoken out about legalising and regulating the drug while her husband was managing director of British Sugar, which is licensed to grow cannabis. The company produces a nonâpsychoactive variety which is used in children’s epilepsy medicine.
During her time as financial secretary to the Treasury this year, Ms Atkins would have negotiated the funding settlement with for NHS in the autumn budget.
Her most pressing priorities coming into the new brief will be to end the ongoing strike threats from junior doctors and consultants, to mitigate winter pressures facing the NHS and tackle the government’s key promise to reduce NHS waiting lists.
The British Medical Association entered negotiations with the health department over junior doctors’ pay, breaking a stalemate previously lasting months. However, the union has also launched a new ballot for NHS consultant strikes to be extended.
Despite Mr Sunak’s promise in January to tackle the NHS care backlog, the figures have continued to rise every month, with 7.8 million appointments recorded on the national waiting list. And recent research shows the waiting list is likely to keep rising until at last August next year.
Ms Atkins also joins during winter as the NHS is traditionally under most pressure. Earlier this year, The Independent revealed a warning from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine that the NHS was not prepared well enough, with half the number of beds promised. The UK’s top doctor warned this could lead to thousands of extra deaths.
Last winter, when her predecessor Mr Barclay was appointed for a second term as health secretary, the NHS was facing record ambulance delays and A&E waits.
In the past two years, there have been three health secretaries includind, Sajid Javid, Therese Coffey.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive for NHS Confederation which represents hospitals and NHS services in England, said the reshuffle was an opportunity for the government to revisit its “disappointing” decision to not cover the costs of industrial action to the NHS – estimated to be £1 billion.
He said: “While Rt Hon Steve Barclay has clearly been a divisive health secretary, on behalf of our members we thank him for the progress he made to resolve the dispute with most trade unions that had facilitated strike activity and for the recent encouraging signs of progress in talks with the BMA.
“It is vital that the NHS does not face further industrial action as this threat, both in terms of the financial hit and the growing waiting lists, continues to weigh heavily on the health service.”