Thérèse Coffey’s ‘be positive’ order angers UK health workers

Thérèse Coffey’s ‘be positive’ order angers UK health workers

Britain’s new health minister has put health professionals to the test by telling them to “be positive” and avoid using policy “jargon” as they grapple with job losses and the rising cost of living.

Thérèse Coffey, who was appointed by Prime Minister Liz Truss this month, issued the guidelines to hundreds of health professionals in an email last Thursday.

Staff were also told to avoid using “Oxford commas”, referring to the disputed punctuation mark that precedes the last entry on a written list.


Insiders said the instructions — titled “Secretary of State’s New Ways of Working Preferences” — had been published on the Ministry of Health and Social Care intranet. An email, seen by the Financial Times, shows that Coffey’s advice has also been forwarded to UK Health Security Agency staff.

The headline has angered health professionals, many of whom were on the front lines during the Covid pandemic and now face real wage cuts and additional pressure as the infection rate is expected to rise in the winter.

Coffey’s office asked employees to “be precise” and “be positive — if we’ve done something right, let’s say so and avoid double negations.”

The email was “super condescending . . . It does make you think if you’re in the right place if a new minister comes up with this,” says one of the UKHSA’s ballots.

“The idea that we have to formulate problems positively indicates a person who doesn’t want to deal with problems, so that’s not encouraging,” she added.

Another senior public health official said they understood staff would view the reference to Oxford commas in particular as “extremely patronizing”.

But, they added, the agency had a way of communicating that was “incredibly profound and I can imagine that Thérèse Coffey house style meanders through the ceiling”.

Health officials said it was not uncommon for ministerial teams to set out working methods for staff when new ministers were appointed. “While there is usually some guidance, it’s not that prescriptive,” says one person with knowledge of employee mood.

The email has caused great frustration among some staff at UKHSA, which was born last year from Public Health England and was the main body responsible for treating outbreaks, including Covid-19, monkeypox and polio.

UKHSA workers said they were “demoralised” after the government cut significant jobs earlier this year for fixed-term staff involved in fighting outbreaks during the pandemic.

According to those in the know, UKHSA has been warned internally that job losses – up to 70 per cent in some departments – could seriously hamper response to outbreaks.

UKHSA employees have been offered a one-off payment of £350 this year in “recognition of the extraordinary efforts . . . over the past few years,” according to documents viewed by the FT.

Some permanent employees of the health protection agency have received a 2.5 percent pay increase to help manage the rising cost of living, according to insiders.

“We’re actually getting a pay cut,” said an 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 extended overtime, including during holidays, we are getting pay increases that are well below current inflation rates,” the person added.

The UKHSA said: “We greatly appreciate all our hard-working colleagues who work tirelessly to ensure the health of our nation.”


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