April 24, 2024

‘The Labour Party is writing women out of our vocabulary’

Atkins, a Sunak loyalist and Remainer, who is seen as towards the left of the party, gives no direct answer when asked if the NHS could cost the Tories the next election, but instead says: “I’m going to do everything I can to present our NHS in not just a positive light – to reflect the good services that are going on, day in, day out across the country –  but also our vision for its future.”

“We are so, so lucky to have this service where people can just walk in and get the help they need, you know, and if God forbid, it’s an emergency, they will get world-class care,” she insists.

Asked about the current state of the NHS, and whether it’s something the Government can be proud of, or should apologise for, Atkins highlights some “significant achievements”: an increase in the proportion of cancers being diagnosed early, the rise in total number of appointments being offered by GP practices.  

She describes herself as an “advocate” for improvements.  

The mother of one was born in London and raised in Lancashire, attending an independent school in Blackpool from where she could hear the screams from the Pleasure Beach.

She was the first member of her family to go to university, reading Law at Cambridge and becoming a criminal barrister, prosecuting serious organised crime.

Politics was a natural progression. The daughter of Sir Robert Atkins, a Tory MP in the 1970s and 80s, and later an MEP, and Lady (Dulcie) Atkins, a Conservative councillor and mayor, she turned to politics in 2010, when she was shortlisted but failed to win the safe seat of Salisbury. 

She was elected as MP for Louth and Horncastle in Lincolnshire at the 2015 general election, and lives in the constituency with her businessman husband Paul Kenward, their 11-year-old son Monty, and their whippet Bob  (“A real vote-winner if I take him on a by-election campaign”)

“My career before I was in politics was as a criminal barrister speaking up for victims of crime and prosecuting criminals. And I brought those principles to politics. I want us to be proud of our NHS. I also want us to be able to have constructive conversations about how we can improve it and make it better.”

Atkins is open about her own experience of the NHS, and how that inspired her choice of career. 

“One of the reasons I came into politics was because of the NHS. I’ve seen some of the best aspects of the NHS but I’ve also seen some of its darker corners,” she says.

“My experiences of having my little boy were at times quite frightening. And so I’ve been an advocate for people throughout the whole of my career,” she says.

Last month Atkins told a women’s health summit how she was rushed into an overstretched maternity unit early in her pregnancy, after suffering complications and forced to share a unit with women who had just endured “very traumatic experiences”.

“It was deeply worrying to be lying in that ward with women who had a hellish experience, who were in agony,” she told medics.

But today she tells me about how in fact some of her most troubling experiences came at a much more formative age, after she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of three. She describes the threats by a “very stentorian consultant” who would tell young diabetes sufferers, including Atkins, that if they did not follow his strict regime to the letter then they would suffer increasingly terrifying consequences at various stages – culminating in death.

She cites his attitude as “an example of why the nanny state really doesn’t work. I’m very very sceptical about those sort of finger-wagging, terrifying statements that the Left and Labour seem to like.”

She is breezy about the impact of diabetes on her life, now as a minister, as well as when she was younger. It didn’t get in the way of a string of sporting achievements, a tough career in the law, or a succession of ministerial posts. 

“I try to show it’s a condition that you can manage and what is more, you can do you know some pretty important interesting stuff: like being health secretary.”

Atkins speaks passionately about the need for the NHS to listen to the patient’s voice, having this week announced the introduction of Martha’s Rule – now being rolled out across over 100 NHS sites from April – giving families the right to seek an urgent second opinion when a patient is deteriorating.

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