What is the role of the health secretary? What should it be, and how does it and should it relate to the management of the NHS?

In this second edition of Glaziers and window breakers, 11 former health secretaries answer these questions and more. In addition to their own insights and advice, the book contains a thorough analysis of their words and the landscape in which they had to operate. 

At the time the first edition published in May 2015, Jeremy Hunt had been secretary of state for a little under 2 years. This revised edition adds the Jeremy Hunt interview and new analysis of the major shifts during his tenure as the longest-serving health secretary. The book also explores the impact of Andrew Lansley’s 2012 Act. This was meant to define an entirely new relationship between the health secretary and the service – to run the NHS along much more market-like lines, with minimal involvement from the secretary of state. How far that has happened in practice is explored in this edition. Questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it might mean for the role of the health secretary, are for future editions of the book. 

The health secretaries interviewed for the first edition and retained here are: 

  • Virginia Bottomley – ‘Sometimes you want a window breaker and sometimes you want a glazier.’ 
  • Kenneth Clarke – ‘I closed more hospitals than most people had hot dinners.’ 
  • William Waldegrave – ‘Chequers was surrounded by furious journalists and it was all hopeless.’ 
  • Stephen Dorrell – ‘Of course it doesn’t work if you change it every 5 years.’ 
  • Frank Dobson – ‘I have no problems with command and control.’ 
  • Alan Milburn – ‘Politics is the trap. And the only thing that can break it is politics.’ 
  • Patricia Hewitt – ‘The discovery of the overspend was a really shocking moment.’ 
  • Alan Johnson – ‘Piss off. I’m dealing with this.’ 
  • Andy Burnham – ‘It’s a hard balance. It’s very hard.’ 
  • Andrew Lansley – ‘The more you try to do, the more you get hit for it.’ 

Further reading


Breaking with Lansley’s Act

26 October 2020

Nicholas Timmins assesses Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as the longest serving health secretary.


How to be health secretary - Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP and Nick Timmins


Episode 1. What is the role of the health secretary? What are the lessons learnt from COVID-19?


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Cite this publication

Timmins N. Glaziers and window breakers: former health secretaries in their own words. 2nd edn. The Health Foundation; 2020 (https://doi.org/10.37829/HF-2020-C03)

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