The new UK health secretary has riled healthcare workers by telling them to “be positive” and avoid using policy wonk “jargon” as they grapple with job cuts and the deepening cost of living crisis.
Thérèse Coffey, who was appointed by Prime Minister Liz Truss this month, issued the guidance to hundreds of health staff in an email last Thursday.
Staff were also told to avoid using “Oxford commas” — referring to the contested punctuation mark that precedes the last item on a written list.
Insiders said that the instructions — entitled “New secretary of state ways of working preferences” — had been published on the Department of Health and Social Care’s intranet. An email, seen by the Financial Times, shows Coffey’s guidance was also forwarded to UK Health Security Agency staff.
The rubric has angered health workers, many of whom were on the front lines during the Covid pandemic and who now face real-terms pay cuts and added pressures as infection rates are expected to rise over the winter.
Coffey’s office asked employees to “be precise” and “be positive — if we have done something good, let us say so and avoid double negatives”.
The email was “super patronising . . . It does make you consider if you’re in the right place when a new minister comes in with this”, said one person with knowledge of the mood at the UKHSA.
“The idea that we have to frame issues positively indicates a person who doesn’t want to deal with problems, so that’s not encouraging,” they added.
Another senior public health official said they understood that staff would see the reference to Oxford commas, in particular, as “extremely patronising”.
However, they added, the agency had a way of communicating that was “incredibly abstruse and I can imagine that house style winding Thérèse Coffey up through the ceiling”.
Health officials said it was not unusual for ministerial teams to set out ways of working for staff when new ministers were appointed. “Although there is usually some guidance, it’s not so prescriptive,” said a person with knowledge of the mood among employees.
The email has caused particular frustration among some staff at the UKHSA, which was born out of Public Health England last year and has been the main agency in charge of dealing with outbreaks, including Covid-19, monkeypox and polio.
UKHSA workers said they were “demoralised” after the government earlier this year made substantial job cuts to fixed-term staff who were involved in outbreak control during the pandemic.
According to people with knowledge of the matter, UKHSA has been warned internally that job cuts — of up to 70 per cent in some departments — could seriously hinder its response to outbreaks.
Staff at UKHSA have this year been offered a one-off £350 payment in “recognition of the extraordinary efforts . . . over the past couple of years”, according to documents seen by the FT.
Some permanent staff at the health protection agency have been offered a 2.5 per cent pay increase to help manage the rising cost of living, according to insiders.
“We are actually getting a salary cut,” said one employee with knowledge of the plans. UK inflation is expected to hover around the low double digits this autumn.
“After everything we have done to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, including extensive overtime working, including during bank holidays, we are getting pay increases that are way below current inflation rates,” the person added.
The UKHSA said: “We value enormously all of our hard-working colleagues who work tirelessly to make our nation’s health secure.”