Health secretary Steve Barclay admits pledge to build '40 new hospitals' really means five

Health Secretary Steve Barclay arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in London, to appear on t he BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. Picture date: Sunday May 28, 2023. (Photo by James Manning/PA Images via Getty Images)
Steve Barclay outside BBC Broadcasting House in London on Sunday morning after defending his '40 hospitals' pledge. (Getty Images)

Health secretary Steve Barclay has admitted the government's commitment to build 40 "brand new" hospitals by 2030 isn't quite what it seems.

Earlier this week, the minister insisted his department was still on track to meet the manifesto commitment, made by Boris Johnson during his 2019 election campaign.

However, pressed on the BBC's Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme, Barclay acknowledged that the 40 projects also include a range of building work on existing sites.

"I really want you to be straight about this, because for a normal person, building a new wing or maybe refurbishing part of a hospital, that is not a brand new hospital," Kuenssberg said.

"If you save up and you get a new conservatory on the back of your house, you don't have a new house. So can you be honest with people, you're not building 40 brand new hospitals."

Watch: Steve Barclay tells Commons '40 hospitals' pledge will still be met by 2030

Barclay replied: "Some of the schemes include, for example, a hospital being gutted and fully refurbished – if you look at Charing Cross for example, that's exactly what we'll be doing.

"And we'll be starting work to decant some of the facilities and then refurbish, so there's a range of things within the scheme.

"That was a debate that was had in 2020 – we're sticking with those schemes, but we're accelerating those schemes, which include five brand new hospitals."

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Even this is open to interpretation, depending on what is meant by "new", as this appears to be in reference to the government's promise to rebuild five hospitals made with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in desperate need of repair.

Asked why he still insists on repeating the "40 brand new hospitals" line, Barclay said: "Well, if it's a new wing, a new facility, a women and children's hospital for example, as part of a wider campus... what matters to you as a patient is whether the facilities are state of the art, whether they're new."

Speaking to the Commons on Thursday, Barclay said that while the government was on track with its "40 hospitals" target, he acknowledged up to eight of the original sites are unlikely to be completed in time.

This is because additional hospitals made with RAAC and at risk of collapse have been added to the programme.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MAY 23: Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson listens during a tour after a meeting with Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas State Capitol on May 23, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Gov. Abbott met with Johnson to discuss economic development. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
The pledge was originally made by Boris Johnson as part of his 2019 election campaign. (Getty Images)

The hospitals earmarked for these repairs are Airedale General in Keighley, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, Hinchingbrooke near Huntingdon, Leighton Hospital in Cheshire and Frimley Park in Surrey.

Barclay told MPs the government remained committed to eradicating RAAC from the NHS estate, with seven hospitals either constructed entirely, or in major part, with the materials that are not "safe to operate beyond 2030".

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Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said he expected Barclay might have come to the Commons to "be upfront about the fact" that Johnson's campaign pledge "is simply not going to happen" by 2030.

He added: "It was a straightforward commitment: 40 new hospitals. Except since then, we have become familiar with the idea that they weren't new and astonishingly they weren't even new hospitals."