Adult social care has its fourth cabinet minister in two years following Rishi Sunak’s major government reshuffle.
Victoria Atkins has replaced Steve Barclay as health and social care secretary, after the latter spent one year in post in his second stint in the job. Since 2021, the post has also been occupied by Sajid Javid and – briefly, under Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership – Thérèse Coffey.
Atkins, an MP since 2015, was previously a Treasury minister and before that spent four years in the Home Office with responsibility for issues including child sexual abuse and exploitation, violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse, and modern slavery.
Atkins takes up her post ahead of what is likely to be another tough winter for the health and adult social care systems, following the busiest October on record for A&E departments.
With, at most, 14 months until a general election, Sunak will be expecting Atkins to deliver on his priority to cut NHS waiting lists from their post-pandemic high, including by resolving ongoing disputes with junior doctors and consultants.
Atkins highlighted these issues in her opening remarks as secretary of state.
“Our NHS matters to us all, and I look forward to working with NHS and social care colleagues to bolster services during what promises to be a very challenging winter, cut waiting lists and improve patient care,” she said.
“I am also determined to drive forward discussions with striking unions in order to end the ongoing industrial action which has caused so much disruption to patients.”
‘Significant risks’ around cap on care costs
Adult social care is likely to be lower down her list of priorities despite the significant workforce and demand pressures it faces and warnings last week from the National Audit Office (NAO) that the Department of Health and Social Care is lagging behind schedule on its agenda for reforming the sector.
One key decision for Atkins is whether the DHSC should press ahead with its delayed reform to adult social care charging, which would involve the introduction of a cap on care costs by October 2025.
In its report last week, the NAO concluded that there were “significant risks” to the reform being delivered on schedule and work needed to start soon, backed by additional resource.