Brexit brings a new public health and primary care minister

April proved to be yet another eventful month in Westminster. On the first day alone MPs rejected all Brexit options presented to Parliament, whilst the following day saw Theresa May hold one of the longest cabinet meetings in modern British history. The frenetic start to the month continued, with the PM soon forced to seek an extension to Article 50, which by the second week of April meant that the date of leaving the EU had formally been delayed until October 31st.

Amidst the ongoing Brexit impasse and other events of the month, one may be forgiven for overlooking the appointment of the new minister for Public Health and Primary Care. Following Steve Brine’s resignation last month over no-deal concerns, Theresa May has appointed one of her closest aides to the position as his replacement – South Ribble MP, Seema Kennedy.

In this blog we take a closer look at the new minister, including how she has spent her time in Parliament so far, her rise through the ranks of the Conservative party and the likely permanency of her appointment considering how it has come about.

Who is Seema Kennedy and how has she got here?

Born in Lancashire to an Iranian Muslim father and Irish Catholic mother, Seema Kennedy’s family moved to Iran when she was six weeks old but were later forced to flee as a result of the 1979 Islamic revolution. After a move to England, Kennedy trained and qualified as a solicitor at Slaughter and May before moving to Bevan Brittan LLP, eventually becoming a director at her family business, Tustin Developments, which owns properties across the North West of England.

Her first foray into politics saw her unsuccessfully contest the Labour safe seat of Ashton-Under-Lyne in 2010, campaigning on issues such as local NHS services, the economy and better support for families.  The election saw her Labour competitor, David Heyes, receive almost twice her number of votes (18,604 against 9,510). However, Kennedy did increase local support for the Conservatives by some 2,000+ votes from the 2005 election, resulting in a 7.3% swing in the party’s favour (compared to the 5.1% national swing in the same direction). Nevertheless, given that the seat has been a Labour stronghold since 1935, Kennedy’s defeat was somewhat unsurprising.

Fortune was on her side in 2014, however, when she was selected by party activists to replace the incumbent Conservative MP for South Ribble, Lorraine Fullbrook, who had taken the seat from Labour in 2010 but was now stepping down due to personal reasons. Kennedy was subsequently elected with 46.4% of the vote as MP for South Ribble in 2015, making her the first MP of Iranian descent in the House of Commons.

Following her election, Kennedy was soon appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Nick Gibb in 2016, Minister of State for School Standards at the Department for Education. Her performance here helped secure her promotion in 2017 to serve in the same capacity for Theresa May – a move that prompted The Telegraph to name her as one of eight MPs “you might have never heard of” most likely to succeed the PM.

Her time in the PM’s office saw Kennedy labelled as May’s “eyes and ears”, making it all the more impressive that she has managed to remain widely respected by party colleagues. Joining the progressive Tory Reform Group in 2018 is a mark of her growing relevance in the party, recognised by The Times, who awarded her 91st place on their 2018 list of the 100 most influential Conservatives.

What are her likely areas of focus?

In her new role within the Department of Health and Social Care, Kennedy will now be charged with responsibility for primary care, prevention, the public health system and major diseases including cancer. She will also be the ministerial lead for Public Health England, the Food Standards Agency and NHS Resolution. These are the same responsibilities that Steve Brine held in his two years in post and represent a not insignificant challenge for Kennedy to pick up.

With this in mind, it will be particularly interesting to see where Kennedy will choose to focus her attention. Steve Brine developed a specific interest in reform to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and expansion of the Cancer Dashboard. With the NICE Methods Review already underway and set to continue throughout this year and much of 2020, Kennedy is likely to have to carefully manage competing views across Parliament, industry, and patient and professional groups, about how NICE can ensure its processes are appropriate for future assessments of innovative new medicines. This is likely to include calls to reform the way that the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) is measured and used as part of appraisals. Changes may also be sought to the type of data accepted by NICE, as highlighted by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), which has called for regulators to “become more comfortable” with utilising results from smaller trials.

Whilst time is needed for Kennedy to set out her own stall, the health-related interests she has expressed during her time in the House have focused more around disability rights and the health and wellbeing of older people – evidenced in part by her positions as Co-Chair of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission and a ‘Dementia Friend’ for the Alzheimer’s Society. She has also shown her support on social media for various cervical, ovarian and breast cancer awareness and screening campaigns, perhaps suggestive of an interest in women’s health.

Could this signal the end of Theresa May’s premiership?

While Kennedy may not have been the most well-known MP to be involved in April’s Ministerial reshuffle, she was arguably one of the more significant ones. As suggested by the New Statesman, Theresa May’s decision to give one of her closest and most reliable aides an effective promotion will surely be seen as a final act of patronage before a new Prime Minister comes to the fore. Just how long this will take remains to be seen, as does the question of whether a new leader will want to coordinate a Departmental shake up of their own…

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