Sir David’s regret over Mid-Staffs hospital failures

NHS England’s chief executive Sir David Nicholson has spoken of his “bitter regrets” over failing to meet the families of patients who died in Mid-Staffordshire.

He admitted his response to the Mid-Staffs report – which revealed serious and systematic failures in care – had been one of the hardest lessons he learned during his 36-year career with the NHS.

Sir David told a packed audience at Health and Care Innovation Expo 2014 at Manchester Central: “The biggest and most obvious mistake I made over the Mid-Staffs report was that I did not seek out the families or the patients’ representatives. I made the wrong call.

“It had turned into a media circus and I didn’t want to be involved in that. I was absolutely wrong not to go and meet the relatives of the patients involved. It was a mistake that I bitterly, bitterly regret.”

Sir David was answering questions during a candid spotlight interview with David Brindle of The Guardian newspaper on the second day of Expo.

Despite his regrets, Sir David insisted he was right not to resign.

“I’ve had some uncomfortable moments over all this. And if people and families of patients want to have a go at me, I accept that and will take it. But I decided to stay as I thought there was a danger the fallout from Mid-Staffordshire could turn very horrible for the NHS overall, when we could use the report to make positive changes.

“I thought it would be irresponsible to wander off at that moment. But I am a human being and you cannot read the stuff about people being injured and harmed without being upset. I accept I made some mistakes in all that.”

Sir David, who retires at the end of March after a career spanning 36 years with the NHS, eight of them as chief executive, explained that he wanted to stay on in his post to manage the transition of the NHS and the consequences of the Francis Report, adding: “But I have made the right decision to go now.”

Talking of handing over the role to his successor Simon Stevens, he said: “They say with this job that you are never more powerful than the day you walk through the door. It is important that he uses that power as over the next 12 months there are some important decisions to be taken about the future of the NHS. He needs to hit the ground running.

“I am extremely proud of the NHS. I’ve worked for it for more than 35 years. I’m what they call a lifer. I am less proud of the fact that change takes longer than you want it to. There are things I would have liked to have done but didn’t get round to.”

He said going forward the NHS faced a big programme of change, adding: “You need consistency of purpose and direction to make it happen and we need to mobilise people.

“Beware of politicians who say we can muddle through. I just don’t believe that is true. And people say ‘keep your head down’, but I don’t think we should do that.”

Asked about the five Health Secretaries he worked with during his years as chief executive, he said: “They want transformational change but without noise, and I don’t think you can do that.”


  1. Margaret Coles says:

    I agree with you that Steven Simons observations on taking office are worthy of note. I wrote this comment on reading his address to the Kings Fund recently.

    ‘As a recruited South African physiotherapist, back in 1996, I was commissioned to set up community services in Cambridge under Lifespan Trust, one of the first Community Trusts in the country. It was an exciting time of continual change and innovation. From what you say, Simon, I think many of the initiatives had your fingerprint on them. Rapid Response, Supported Discharge and Intermediate Care amongst them. We also had one of the first integrated Health and Social Care teams which proved highly successful. All directives from the Department of Health were picked up and implemented. We had highly motivated and well trained Multidisciplinary Teams and the demands called for all our creative powers and hard work but proved their value over and again. Sad to say continual meddling and change, for whatever reason, meant they lost their edge and momentum and those of us who have retired look on with sadness.

    With your arrival on the scene I again have hope in my heart and wish you well. I continue to practise the skills I gained where I now live, convinced that they hold the key to a vital, energised community. We were speeding in the right direction but somehow lost our way. I think you will help us find it again.’

    I am indeed full of hope for a decentralised, repersonalised and re-energised NHS.

  2. Mr Tony Morden says:

    Sir Davis – My son (a police officer) was rushed into Stafford Hospital at the height of what turned out to be its time of crisis with a very serious injury. I have nothing but praise for the surgeons who saved his leg. But he was returned to a filthy ward. On arrival later that day I instructed him not to walk on bare feet, purchased him slippers and a bottle of handwash, told him to use the handwash continuously, and got him out of there as quickly as we dared to bring him home ie after a couple of days and registered him at North Tees Hospital, having explained to a startled consultant there about the state of Stafford Hospital. The NHS talks a good talk. But it is not so good at the implementation. Too many cooks and too many chiefs. Not enough joined-up thinking. That is something Mr Stevens will have to deal with, or he will have to undo all the propaganda and the hype. For example, what about FGM and events at Whittington Hospital? Or is it all a case of “I hear what you say” and “don’t apologise and don’t explain”.

    Tony Morden

  3. Jade Taylor says:

    Dear Sir David,
    I have tried to contact you on a number of occassions with regard to the experiences I underwent at Stafford hospital with regard to my late mother.
    Sadly my step father did not survive a post operative hospital infection in November 2006 where the care and treatment was first started at Stafford hospital.
    On all these occasions you have and still do decline contact with me only speaking through the press.
    I work in the NHS and I too sometimes have to speak with relatives who are in terrible grief and pain. As our leader, I feel sorry that you feel you cannot do that for me.
    Yours Sincerely

    Jade Taylor