The announcement of his retirement will relieve the pressure on him to resign following the Francis report, which implicated him in the Mid Staffordshire tragedy.
It also means that he will not have to deal with growing anger over revelations that the ‘Nicholson challenge’ of cutting £5bn from the NHS budget each year means an absolute cut in the NHS budget.
A former Communist Party member, Nicholson has been a strong supporter of current Conservative health policy: he began implementing the Health and Social Care Act prior to its approval by Parliament.
However, last autumn he warned that “carpet bombing” the NHS with private sector providers would lead to “misery and failure”. NHS reform needed to support clinical decision-making, he argued.
The Francis report into the unnecessary deaths at Stafford Hospital between 2005 and 2009 found that Nicholson, as head of the region’s SHA, had not acted on warnings about the hospital’s high death rate.
While the Francis report blamed inadequate staffing levels and bad management for the tragedy, Nicholson pinned the blame on the Labour Government’s infection control and waiting time targets.
Nicholson has worked in the NHS for 35 years, and was NHS Chief Executive for almost seven years. In April this year he became Chief Executive of NHS England, a role effectively continuous with his previous one.
In a letter to Professor Malcolm Grant, Chair of NHS England, Nicholson declared his continued support for the NHS reform process: “I still passionately believe in what NHS England intends to do. My hope is that by being clear about my intentions now [I] will give the organisation the opportunity to attract candidates of the very highest calibre so they can appoint someone who will be able to see this essential work through to its completion.”
Nicholson’s retirement will quieten the controversy over his role in the NHS reforms of this and the last government, and allow recognition of his lifelong commitment to the NHS.