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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.”