Sajid Javid has said his “most immediate priority” will be getting the country through the coronavirus pandemic, as he took up the job of Health Secretary.
Speaking to the media for the first time since he took over from Matt Hancock on Saturday, Mr Javid said he recognises the “huge responsibility” facing him.
He pledged to “do everything I can to make sure that I deliver for this great country”.
Mr Javid’s return to the Cabinet came just 90 minutes after Mr Hancock announced his resignation on Saturday evening, following the leaking of video footage showing him breaking social distancing rules by kissing an aide in his ministerial office.
Mr Javid, a former chancellor and home secretary, said Mr Hancock had worked “incredibly hard” and “achieved a lot”, and he added: “We are still in a pandemic and I want to see that come to an end as soon as possible and that will be my most immediate priority, to see that we can return to normal as soon and as quickly as possible.”
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his message had created confusion, referencing a similar statement distributed later, in Mr Javid’s name, by his new department with the terminology of returning to normal “as soon and as quickly as possible” omitted.
Speaking to the media in north London, Sir Keir said: “What we’ve seen today already I’m afraid is confusion, because the incoming Health Secretary said he wants to open up as quickly as possible, the Government’s now rowed back on that.
“I don’t think it’s inspired confidence that already in day one, there’s been the Health Secretary saying his position this morning and then the Government rowing back on it.”
Although the pandemic was at the forefront of Mr Javid’s mind, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would have a number of other issues to tackle, including social care.
It was put to Mr Hunt on The Andrew Marr Show that when he held the role, he had not been able to overhaul the sector in six years.
But asked how long Mr Javid had, he said: “Six months, because the Government have said they will do it by the end of this year, and I know Sajid will want to honour that promise.”
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association’s council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said Mr Javid would need to be “honest” with the public over tackling a backlog of care and negotiate the resources that the NHS needs.
He told Sky News there were “a record five plus million patients on waiting lists” which “doesn’t include about 20 million patients who were not seen in outpatient clinics last year”.
He added: “Many of those patients will become more ill as time goes on. Many of them have health conditions, which if they’re not treated promptly, will become more serious.
“And what he will need to do is manage that crisis in a way that delivers prioritisation, but also be honest with the public about the length of time it’s going to take.”
Mr Javid’s appointment came after Boris Johnson had initially stuck by Mr Hancock following the Sun newspaper’s revelation at around 1am on Friday of CCTV footage that showed him kissing Gina Coladangelo, taken last month.
Reports suggested Mr Hancock was made aware of the footage on Thursday evening, and he apologised on Friday following its publication but did not immediately resign.
No 10 said the Prime Minister considered the matter closed following Mr Hancock’s apology, but pressure mounted throughout the day and into Saturday, and Conservative MPs began to call for Mr Hancock to go.
By just after 6pm on Saturday, Mr Hancock said he had been to see Mr Johnson to tender his resignation as his personal life threatened to distract from the pandemic effort.
Less than two hours later, Mr Javid had been confirmed in the post.
Sir Keir said: “Matt Hancock was right to resign because he broke the rules – he had to go.
“But the Prime Minister should have sacked him. Yet again, Boris Johnson was too slow, too weak and didn’t show the leadership that was needed.
“When the many people who’ve made huge sacrifices during this pandemic see this, what they see is one rule for them and another rule for those close to Government, and there is a lack of integrity at the heart of Government, and it starts with Boris Johnson I’m afraid.”
Asked on Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News whether Mr Hancock had only thought it was right to resign once criticism increased, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said: “Matt in his own letter, I think, said – and ultimately I think – he has made probably the right judgment in the sense that he doesn’t want this situation around himself to distract from that key focus and the key work of the Government, which is to deliver for people on the pandemic and as we are coming out of the pandemic.”
He added: “I do think it was right that the Prime Minister and Matt were focused even in the last couple of days, on making sure that experience, that knowledge that has been gained through the last year and a half or so in dealing with the pandemic, was there to be able to focus on the pandemic.
“And I don’t think that is in any contradiction at all to Matt also taking the opportunity to look at the situation and to reflect and decide that his position was distracting from the work that has come out of the pandemic and I think credit to Matt, that his focus is not just on his family but on the wider country and the best interests of the UK.”
But shadow housing secretary Lucy Powell said the fact Mr Hancock was not sacked by the Prime Minister on Friday demonstrated a “very dangerous blind spot”.
She told Trevor Phillips On Sunday: “These are the difficult decisions of leadership and I’m afraid it feels to me that the Prime Minister has a very dangerous blind spot when it comes to issues of integrity and conduct in public life and that’s a really big problem and it’s an even bigger problem when you’re in the middle of a pandemic and you’re asking the public to also have integrity and conduct in the way that they go about with their own lives.”