Hunt’s war of words with Hawking has gone too far, says former health secretary

Authors: Abi Rimmer 

Publication date:  01 Sep 2017

The secretary of state for health’s current dispute with the eminent scientist Stephen Hawking has gone too far, a former health secretary has said.

Andy Burnham, mayor for Greater Manchester and former Labour cabinet member, told The BMJ he thought that the current health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was wrong to repeatedly dispute Hawking’s views on the evidence for seven day NHS services.

Hunt and Hawking have been in an ongoing dispute over the evidence for seven day services after a speech Hawking gave at the Royal Society of Medicine earlier this month. During the speech Hawking accused Hunt of cherry picking evidence to prove the need for increased services at the weekend.[1] Hunt then responded on Twitter, accusing Hawking of being wrong about a lack of evidence for the so called “weekend effect” on patient mortality.

Burnham, who was Labour health secretary from 2009 to 2010, subsequently served as the party’s shadow health secretary in opposition from 2011 to 2015, during which time he clashed repeatedly with Hunt about the coalition government’s handling of the NHS. When asked what advice he would give to the current government on its handling of the NHS, he replied, “‘Don’t argue with Stephen Hawking’ would be at the top of that list.”

Commenting on whether Hunt’s behaviour was appropriate, Burnham added, “I would always say write a reply and defend your corner once, but to carry on a war of words, I would say not. People have to make their own judgments about how they go about things.”

Burnham said that his other advice to the government on the NHS would be to end the current funding squeeze and find a sustainable solution for social care.

He said, “Having raised social care during the election campaign they now need to come up with something, because, with every year that passes without a solution for it, the danger to the NHS grows owing to the lack of a proper long term solution for social care.

“Without answers on the long term funding of both health and social care, we’re on a downward cycle.”


  1. Rimmer A. Debating the future of the NHS: Hawking versus Hunt. BMJ  2017;358:j4007. [Link]   [Link] .

Abi Rimmer The BMJ

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