Health Secretary Victoria Atkins: ‘The Labour Party is writing women out of our vocabulary’

Victoria Atkins, MP, took over the post of health secretary three months ago
Victoria Atkins, MP, took over the post of health secretary three months ago - Heathcliff O'Malley

When Victoria Atkins first stood to become an MP, in 2015, a family friend was ready to vouch for her. “She doesn’t stand any nonsense,” said Sir John Major, who had known her since she was “in nappies”.

“She is not afraid of a tough fight,” added the former PM – the oldest friend of her father, a former Tory MP, saying that Atkins “undoubtedly” had the qualities to make a senior minister.

Now just over three months into her tenure as health secretary, the former criminal barrister is embroiled in one of the most bitter conflicts the NHS has ever faced.

Today, tens of thousands of junior doctors across England embark on their tenth round of strikes. Desperate attempts by health officials to agree “mitigations” with the British Medical Association (BMA) to protect patients from the worst of all harms have failed, despite evidence that more than 7,000 cancer patients have suffered cancellations during the strikes so far.

“There are a lot of junior doctors who are growing increasingly worried about the fact that the [BMA’s junior doctors committee] has now called more than 40 days’ worth of industrial action,” she says. “It is very difficult to stomach those scenes of junior doctors singing on the picket lines whilst people are desperately trying to get care in hospital,” she adds. “I think they are causing harm.”

When Atkins, 47, became health secretary in November, some suggested her rather more “emollient” personal skills could unlock the bitter pay dispute with doctors.

We meet in a brightly coloured side room in Hillingdon Hospital in North West London, where she is being shown the construction of the new hospital, one of 40 builds under the Government’s flagship New Hospital Programme.

Victoria Atkins is shown plans for the construction of a new site at Hillingdon Hospital
Victoria Atkins is shown plans for the construction of a new site at Hillingdon Hospital - Heathcliff O'Malley

Today, she says that talks with consultants – who narrowly turned down their pay offer – remain “very constructive”.

However, discussions with juniors broke down abruptly, with Atkins revealing that even as the last pay meeting took place, the BMA had already begun drawing up letters announcing the next strike. During that final meeting, Atkins was baffled when the union suggested that ministers extend their mandate, allowing them to strike beyond the end of this month.

“No responsible government is going to make it easier for you to strike,” she told the Junior Doctors Committee (JDC). “They’ve already had an up-to 10.3 per cent pay rise. And I want to go further. And yet the JDC has not seen fit to put these offers to their members.”

More than 1.4 million NHS operations and appointments have now been cancelled as a result of health service strikes.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – who vowed to cut waiting lists as one of his five electoral pledges – recently admitted that the Government has already failed on its pledge. The NHS is likely to be a key battleground for an election that the Tories look poised to lose. Most key targets – including those to be seen in A&E – have not been hit since 2015, with a 40 per cent rise in long waits to see a GP in the last year.

Jeremy Hunt and Victoria Atkins attend the Global Investment Summit at Hampton Court Palace, in East Molesey, Surrey, Nov 2023
Jeremy Hunt and Victoria Atkins attend the Global Investment Summit at Hampton Court Palace, in East Molesey, Surrey, Nov 2023 - Reuters

Atkins, a Sunak loyalist and Remainer, who is seen as towards the left of the party, gives no direct answer when asked if the NHS could cost the Tories the next election, but instead says: “I’m going to do everything I can to present our NHS in not just a positive light – to reflect the good services that are going on, day in, day out across the country –  but also our vision for its future.”

“We are so, so lucky to have this service where people can just walk in and get the help they need, you know, and if God forbid, it’s an emergency, they will get world-class care,” she insists.

Asked about the current state of the NHS, and whether it’s something the Government can be proud of, or should apologise for, Atkins highlights some “significant achievements”: an increase in the proportion of cancers being diagnosed early, the rise in total number of appointments being offered by GP practices.

She describes herself as an “advocate” for improvements.

The mother of one was born in London and raised in Lancashire, attending an independent school in Blackpool from where she could hear the screams from the Pleasure Beach.

She was the first member of her family to go to university, reading Law at Cambridge and becoming a criminal barrister, prosecuting serious organised crime.

Politics was a natural progression. The daughter of Sir Robert Atkins, a Tory MP in the 1970s and 80s, and later an MEP, and Lady (Dulcie) Atkins, a Conservative councillor and mayor, she turned to politics in 2010, when she was shortlisted but failed to win the safe seat of Salisbury.

She was elected as MP for Louth and Horncastle in Lincolnshire at the 2015 general election, and lives in the constituency with her businessman husband Paul Kenward, their 11-year-old son Monty, and their whippet Bob  (“A real vote-winner if I take him on a by-election campaign”)

“My career before I was in politics was as a criminal barrister speaking up for victims of crime and prosecuting criminals. And I brought those principles to politics. I want us to be proud of our NHS. I also want us to be able to have constructive conversations about how we can improve it and make it better.”

Atkins is open about her own experience of the NHS, and how that inspired her choice of career.

“One of the reasons I came into politics was because of the NHS. I’ve seen some of the best aspects of the NHS but I’ve also seen some of its darker corners,” she says.

“My experiences of having my little boy were at times quite frightening. And so I’ve been an advocate for people throughout the whole of my career,” she says.

Last month Atkins told a women’s health summit how she was rushed into an overstretched maternity unit early in her pregnancy, after suffering complications and forced to share a unit with women who had just endured “very traumatic experiences”.

“It was deeply worrying to be lying in that ward with women who had a hellish experience, who were in agony,” she told medics.

But today she tells me about how in fact some of her most troubling experiences came at a much more formative age, after she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of three. She describes the threats by a “very stentorian consultant” who would tell young diabetes sufferers, including Atkins, that if they did not follow his strict regime to the letter then they would suffer increasingly terrifying consequences at various stages – culminating in death.

She cites his attitude as “an example of why the nanny state really doesn’t work. I’m very very sceptical about those sort of finger-wagging, terrifying statements that the Left and Labour seem to like.”

She is breezy about the impact of diabetes on her life, now as a minister, as well as when she was younger. It didn’t get in the way of a string of sporting achievements, a tough career in the law, or a succession of ministerial posts.

“I try to show it’s a condition that you can manage and what is more, you can do you know some pretty important interesting stuff: like being health secretary.”

Atkins speaks passionately about the need for the NHS to listen to the patient’s voice, having this week announced the introduction of Martha’s Rule – now being rolled out across over 100 NHS sites from April – giving families the right to seek an urgent second opinion when a patient is deteriorating.

Victoria Atkins became an MP in 2015 and has served as prisons minister and financial secretary to the Treasury
Victoria Atkins became an MP in 2015 and has served as prisons minister and financial secretary to the Treasury - Hollie Adams

The case of Martha Mills, who died from sepsis aged 13 after falling off her bike, when consultants failed to heed the warnings of her parents that her condition was worsening, has proved a wake-up call to the NHS.

Atkins says that while much of the publicity has focussed on the need to listen to parents’ instincts, it is equally true for older patients, such as sufferers of dementia. “Often it’s only the family who can say what is normal, whereas a clinician won’t have that knowledge.”

What gets her most impassioned is the topic of women – and what she sees as attempts to eradicate their place in society.

Most recently, an NHS trust provoked fury after saying that breast milk produced by trans women who were assigned male at birth is as good for babies as that produced by a mother who has given birth.

Before that, the health service was found to be using the term “chestfeeding” in place of breastfeeding.

“I’m a mum – I find it extraordinary that a trust thought this was an appropriate use of their time,” she says, suggesting that such services would do better to concentrate on tackling long gynaecology waits.

“I’m very comfortable and clear that I am a woman and I would like my rights as a woman to be protected. And they will be protected by the Conservatives.”

She is most scathing of all about Labour’s approach to women, suggesting that a “Left-wing mindset” is creeping into the NHS.

“That is why we need to be making this robust case to refuse to wipe women out of the conversation,” she says.

Sir Keir Starmer famously struggled to define a woman, settling on the statement that 99.9 per cent of women do not have a penis, as the party became embroiled in trans rows.

Last year, then-health secretary Steve Barclay promised the return of “sex-specific” language to the NHS after references to women were expunged from its advice on the menopause and diseases such as cervical and ovarian cancer.

But many trusts have resisted the shift, routinely referring to “people who give birth” while some have referred to “birthing parents”. Atkins can barely contain her outrage.

“When I see reports of mothers as ‘people who give birth’! No – they are mums. I find it deeply concerning that there are parts of the Labour Party and the Left who seem to think that women can just be written out of our vocabulary.”

“Half the population are women. Of course the NHS should use the word ‘woman’,” she adds.

Victoria Atkins on the menopause: 'I certainly wouldn't classify it as a disability'
Victoria Atkins on the menopause: 'I certainly wouldn't classify it as a disability' - Heathcliff O'Malley

Just before Atkins became health secretary, her predecessor promised women the right to single-sex wards, based on their biological gender.

She is still more impassioned about the issue, saying women want the “comfort and reassurance” of single-sex spaces in healthcare.

The topic was a high priority as Home Office minister for safeguarding from 2017 to 2021.

“At the Home Office, I protected single-sex spaces for victims of domestic abuse. It is absolutely clear cut that there is a need for that, for women who have been traumatised by their experiences.”

She went on to become prisons minister, where the issue was just as key.

“I made sure that we had clear protocols in place so that women prisoners were not put at risk by the tiny minority of trans fellow prisoners who may indeed have sex offences recorded against them.”

In 2018, as junior minister for women, she supported decriminalisation of abortion.

MPs are set to vote on decriminalising abortion and reducing the time limit for legal abortion next month after two amendments to the Criminal Justice Act were tabled.

If a bill comes to pass, she would be the person who would have to implement such changes, so she chooses her words carefully.  “I’m very conscious as health secretary that whatever the House decides if there is a vote, my department will be the one to either maintain the status quo or to deliver change. So I’m not going to say anything publicly. But yeah, my voting record [which also saw her support buffer zones for abortion clinics] speaks for itself,” she says.

Earlier this week, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published guidance which said employers should consider menopause as a “disability” and make “reasonable adjustments” for women suffering hot flushes and brain fog.

Atkins wants to see more help given to ensure women can thrive at work in all stages of their life, but is very wary of the notion that it is a disability.

“I certainly wouldn’t classify it as a disability. For some women it’s relatively easy to manage, but for others there are very real impacts on their day-to-day lives. And so we as a society need to be frankly more comfortable talking about that and to protect it in law.

“When I was minister for women, I tried to change the conversation from – gosh, women have periods in their life where somehow they know they won’t be in the workforce, whether it’s maternity leave or now menopause – to wanting women to fulfil their potential in the workplace.”

‘My priorities for our NHS and our social care system are to make it faster, simpler, and fairer’
‘My priorities for our NHS and our social care system are to make it faster, simpler, and fairer’ - Heathcliff O'Malley

Maternity care is another major priority, with work in train for a major drive to provide more support to new mothers, alongside adjacent action to reduce stillbirth rates.

As financial secretary to the Treasury for just over a year, until her appointment as health secretary last November, she drove plans for an expansion in free childcare.

More recently, in the last October half-term, she admitted that she was forced to bring her 11-year-old son around the TV studios for want of childcare herself. “It’s a familiar situation for every mum and parent juggling work and childcare. I was on at seven in the morning and my husband was working so [my son] came in with me,” she said, at the time.

While her son remains excited to see her on the television, he is far more used to parliamentary life.

“He grew up galloping and cantering up and down those long corridors by the side of the chamber,” she says. “The school run is an essential; I will not give that up for anything apart from Cabinet.”

Her rural constituency in Louth, Lincolnshire, provides respite, with greenery, coastline and space, for family walks and building sandcastles. Atkins says she is a huge proponent of prevention when it comes to ill health – but not of lecturing.

She highlights landmark plans to consign cigarettes to history, by continually raising the legal age of sale, and plans to ban disposable vapes. The role of her husband, Paul Kenward, as chief executive of ABF Sugar, one of the world’s largest sugar companies, has prompted questions about Atkins’ commitment to tackling obesity. Atkins, who has said she “voted enthusiastically” for the sugar tax, has said she would recuse herself from some government business if necessary.

Given her Treasury background, it is unsurprising that Atkins is keen to drive efficiency within the NHS. Atkins says the roll-out of 160 community diagnostic centres – allowing GPs to refer patients directly for tests, instead of getting stuck in bottlenecks waiting to see a consultant – is key to boosting productivity and slashing waiting lists. So too the roll-out of “surgical hubs”, meaning that patients waiting for planned operations do not suffer delays and cancellations because of pressures in A&E.

The best performing NHS trusts take a forensic approach to the throughput of patients, she suggests.

But is it time for the Government to think more radically about how to ease pressures on an ailing service? Asked whether ministers would consider the introduction of tax breaks for those using private insurance, she insists that is a matter for the Chancellor.

The Prime Minister has already said the NHS must make more use of the private sector to cut waiting lists, and allow people a choice of provider. Atkins says she is keen to see more use of private providers. But here she draws a line: “My absolute founding principle with all of this is that the NHS remains free at the point of use.”

Given that she has only been in post since November, it is perhaps understandable if she is keen to look to the future. Today, she announces plans for immediate help for those who have just received the devastating diagnosis of dementia.

One-stop-shops, bringing together the information families need in one place – from advice on how to draw up power of attorney, find a carer, to where to apply for allowances – will now be rolled out across the country, she announces.

Medical regulators are currently evaluating the first two treatments for Alzheimer’s disease that could slow progression of disease.

“Healthcare is going to change over the next five to 10 years in ways that I’m not sure all of us can quite imagine at that moment,” she says.

A decision by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency on Lecanemab – found to slow cognitive decline by 27 per cent – is hotly anticipated, along with a decision on Donemab, found to result in a 40 per cent slowdown in decline of everyday activities.

Such breakthroughs also require a fundamental overhaul in the architecture of the NHS, with a mass expansion in scanners and earlier diagnosis of disease.

“There are going to be really positive changes. But I want the NHS to be absolutely champing at the bit to be getting going.”

“My priorities for our NHS and our social care system are to make it faster, simpler, and fairer,” she continues.

“In those three words, I can look at any policy proposal, I can look at ideas and suggestions from patients and from clinicians, and we can see whether that meets any of those criteria – because we are on the cusp of a medical revolution.”