Stephen Hawking has reignited his public dispute with Jeremy Hunt by joining a legal action aimed at scuppering an NHS shake-up that he fears will lead to greater privatisation and rationing of resources.
The physicist has become a party to a lawsuit that is seeking to stop the introduction of the first accountable care organisations (ACOs) into the NHS in England in April.
“I am concerned that accountable care organisations are an attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS,” Hawking told the Guardian, explaining his move.
These little-known opaque bodies could run health services. Are they legal?
“They have not been established by statute, and they appear to be being used for reducing public expenditure, for cutting services and for allowing private companies to receive and benefit from significant sums of public money for organising and providing services.”
ACOs have aroused suspicion among Labour MPs and NHS campaigners because they are modelled on organisations of the same name that play a key role in healthcare in some parts of the US.
Hawking and Hunt became embroiled in a war of words in August after Hawking used a Guardian article to accuse the Conservatives of causing the NHS’s difficulties by underfunding it and Hunt of “cherrypicking” and misrepresenting research findings to suit his arguments.
Hunt claimed on Twitter and in a newspaper piece that Hawking, a “personal hero” to him, had wrongly claimed that the NHS was heading towards a “US-style insurance system”, saying there was no evidence to back this up.
Jeremy Hunt at Downing Street this week. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Hawking has become a “proposed claimant” alongside four academics and NHS campaigners, known as the judicial review group. They hope high court judges will grant them a judicial review to stop Hunt and NHS England bringing in ACOs without the move first being subjected to public consultation and scrutiny by parliament.
“I am joining this legal action because the NHS is being taken in a direction which I oppose, as I stated in August, without proper public and parliamentary scrutiny, consultations and debate,” said Hawking.
“I want the attention of the people of England to be drawn to what is happening and for those who are entrusted with responsibility for the NHS to account openly for themselves in public, and to be judged accordingly.”
The intervention will focus attention on ACOs, which have so far generated little media coverage or political interest. They have been promoted by Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, and backed by the government, as a key part of his Five Year Forward View blueprint to modernise the NHS and help it stay within budget.
NHS England says ACOs are simply a new way of ensuring that different types of health service bodies can work together, and with providers of social care services, in an area to integrate care to benefit patients’ health. But those behind the legal challenge fear ACOs could ultimately gain control of budgets worth billions of pounds and restrict access to care in order to avoid overshooting their budgets.
Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s medical director, has claimed ACOs will end unhelpful fractures between different services and stop patients being “passed from pillar to post”. But he has recognised the difficulty of trying to persuade the public of their benefits.
Allyson Pollock, a professor of public health and one of the four people who instigated the legal action in October, said: “We are honoured and delighted that Prof Stephen Hawking, who cares so deeply about the NHS, is joining this legal action. The full details of these ACOs must be published and consulted on before they progress any further. This should be the first rule of good and transparent administration for the NHS.”
She added: “If Jeremy Hunt and Simon Stevens won’t budge, then this is the moment that everybody needs to come together and say clearly that the NHS is ours, and that we are going to fight to keep it that way.”
The Department of Health said: “We strongly resist the misleading claims in this action; it is irresponsible scaremongering to suggest that Accountable Care Organisations are being used to support privatisation and harm the fundamental principles of the NHS.
“The NHS will remain a taxpayer-funded system free at the point of use; ACOs are simply about making care more joined-up between different health and care organisations.”