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Jeremy Hunt supports govt's rejection of extending free school meals as he says Chancellor has been "generous"

It’s now been 177 days since the government boycotted Good Morning Britain. However, Kate Garraway and Charlotte Hawkins were joined by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on today’s show to discuss care homes in the current crisis, his involvement in Operation Cygnus, how Matt Hancock is handling his responsibility, and his views on continuing to provide free school meals during school holidays and how his family have been coping in recent times.  

On MPs rejecting free school meals until Easter 2021, Hunt said: “I voted with the government on this one, I think it’s incredibly difficult because everyone has enormous sympathy with what Marcus Rashford is arguing for. I think we have to wait and see where we are at over the Christmas holidays. If we're in a lockdown situation and families on the breadline need extra help I think MPs and The Chancellor will be very sympathetic, but we’re not quite at that point yet and I think we’re about to hear today that The Chancellor is going to be very generous… We have got half term, but I think it’s also fair to say that this Chancellor has been more generous than pretty much any government anywhere else in terms of the financial support.

“I think it’s unfair to say they’ve [the school children] been ignored. The government listened to Marcus Rashford over the summer, I know they’re listening to him now... “

Speaking about what will happen if the social care system doesn’t get the additional money it needs during the pandemic, Hunt said: “It will be a catastrophe, simple as that. It is a difficult time, there’s no doubt our national coffers have been cleaned out by the pandemic, but on the other hand this is the year when the whole country saw how brilliant the care workers were in care homes putting their own lives on the line, some of them sadly dying because they were looking after residents in care homes in appalling situations. 

“If we’re not going to do it this year, I don't think we’re really ever going to do it and it’s been something that governments have been talking about for a long time. I tried to fix it. I got a settlement for the NHS, but I didn’t get one for the social care sector and it really is now or never, and I think this is what the country wants and I would really strongly urge The Chancellor to bite the bullet on this one.” 

Asked why he didn’t do something about the social care system when he was Health Secretary, Hunt replied: “Well, I did get some significant increases in funding for social care, but what I didn’t get was a ten-year plan. That’s what I negotiated for the NHS with Theressa May and Philip Hammond who was The Chancellor at the time. I think Theressa May was very, very committed to the social care sector, but the events sort of overtook us.

“But we’re now in a situation where the market risks complete collapse, because a lot of care homes are just going to start saying, we’re just not going to take local authority funded residents going forward because they just don’t have the money to pay for them properly. And we’re going to end up with a fully privatised system where you have very nice care homes, but only for people who are paying top whack, and then everyone else lives in substandard accommodation, and that would be an absolute betrayal of our values as a country.”

Asked if he felt regret that due to his cuts as Health Secretary he was part of the social care problem, he answered: “Look, I was part of the government that brought in some very painful austerity measures and I do think overall it was the right thing to do in 2010, because we got the economy growing… but I did say that I thought the cuts in social care looking back went too far and they are sort of silent cuts.

“When you cut the social care budget, you don’t take away money from anyone, but you stop new people from becoming eligible for help and so no one really notices it but it does do enormous damage and I think now is a really big chance. Boris Johnson has said we can fix this and we will fix it, I think he’s absolutely right to say that. It’s a big moment to put things right.”

Questioned on whether further funding to social care is not a popular topic for governments in power, he added: “With social care, it’s a very difficult conversation to be had because it’s more funding from the treasury, which means more taxes and everyone’s worried that’s not popular… I think the public do understand that we have an ageing population, we’re all going to be old one day and this is something they want fixed for themselves, because they want to have that security of knowing that if they end up with dementia, needing to go into a care home they’re not going to see their life savings cleaned out, they’re not going to see their family’s security taken away.”

On how Matt Hancock is dealing with the pandemic, Hunt offered: “I think Matt is being incredibly resilient. I know what it is like to be behind his desk obviously and although I didn’t have a pandemic, I think I had four winter crises, I had a flu epidemic and so it’s incredibly tough. He has extraordinary energy. 

“I was in the cabinet for nine years and so I know what it’s like to be under pressure. I’m very happy now to be able to spend more time being a slightly better dad, hopefully, than I was before. But overall, this has been a very difficult year.” 

Kate pushed him for a comment on Matt’s performance: “First of all, that Operation Cygnus was a huge pandemic preparation exercise back in 2016 and we put a lot of work into it, and we implemented all of the recommendations, but it had one crucial flaw which was that it was a flu pandemic and what we ended up with was something more like a Sars pandemic with coronavirus. And there was a blind spot, and it was there when I was Health Secretary so I have my share of the responsibility… what is so striking is that there wasn’t a single recommendation about testing…

“To be fair to the Scientific establishment here it was a blind spot that was the same across the whole of Western Europe and the whole of North America, and the only countries that have dealt with coronavirus successful have been the Asian countries that have direct experience of Sars.”

He continued: “But with respect to the government’s performance this year, I think it’s clear now that we were too late going into lockdown and we should have done Test And Trace earlier, but we are in a much, much better position now. We have a huge testing programme, which has had a lot of criticism, but I think is basically the reason why this time round, with a second wave, we have seen the death rate much, much lower than in the first wave. We’ve seen it contained in one part of the country, which is incredibly tough for people living in the North West and the North East of the country, but it hasn’t spread as quickly as it did last time.  

“So I would say overall I am much more optimistic that it won’t be as bad as last time round.” 

On it being 177 days of the government boycotting Good Morning Britain Hunt suggested: “Of course I think the government should appear on all major broadcast programmes, I hope you’re successful in your campaign.”

Hunt also spoke about the potential ban on care staff moving from home to home: “It’s absolutely essential. Countries like Israel and Canada banned care staff from working in more than one care home a long, long time ago. If necessary, we need to make that investment… We do need to be better at valuing care home staff. The reality is we had a terrible tragedy with the number of people that died from Covid in care homes and one of the reasons was the ease in which that virus came into care homes from the community, and I think we absolutely have to make sure that it’s not being carried from care home to care home. I know it’s difficult and perhaps there needs to be extra help for care homes to do this, but I think it’s absolutely essential and I wish we’d done it earlier.”

And on if he has been personally affected by the pandemic, Hunt revealed: “We’ve been fine healthwise. I think I’ve been like mums and dads up and down the country and I’ve been really struggling with home education. I have to be honest, my wife has really taken the strain on that and it was a massive relief when the kids went back in September. And so I think we’re all very happy in the Hunt family that schools are carrying on for now.”

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