Sir David Nicholson has announced that he will retire from the top job in the NHS next year after months of criticism of his managerial role at Mid Staffs.

Writing to Professor Malcolm Grant, the chair of NHS England, Sir David said that he will step down as the chief executive of the NHS England in March next year.

He wrote in a public letter: “My hope is that by being clear about my intentions now 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.

“Even in retirement I will always be the staunchest advocate of the NHS. I continue, and will always continue, to be inspired and moved by the passion that those who work in the NHS show.”

Intense pressure to quit

Sir David has been under intense pressure since the February publication of the Francis report into the failings at the Staffordshire Hospital, which saw as many as 1,200 more patients die during 2005 and 2008 than would have been expected.

There have five reports into the scandal, which found that negligent care and excessive box ticking – valued over the care of patients - were to blame for the extra deaths.

Though Sir David was not mentioned by name in the latest Francis report, he did lead the health authority responsible for the Staffordshire hospital for ten months between 2005 and 2006, at the height of the failings in care.

Because of this, he has been blamed by many family members of the patients who died and in March faced a committee of MPs to explain what happened during his tenure to lead to these failings. He denied to MPs that he had done anything wrong and said he would not be stepping down.

Speaking after his announcement yesterday, Julie Bailey, from the campaign group Cure the NHS - which has led the calls for the under-fire boss to resign - said that his position had been untenable since the publication of the public inquiry.

“It is fantastic news,” she told the BBC. “This is the start of the cure for the NHS. We can start to look to the future now. He was part of the problem - not part of the solution. We now need a leader who will galvanise and inspire the front line, not bully them.”

The search will now be on for his replacement with Mark Britnell, the former NHS director general who left the Department of Health in 2009 to become the European head of health for consultancy firm KPMG, tipped to be Sir David’s most likely successor. 

Backed by the NHS elite

Despite public calls for his resignation Sir David has remained popular with politicians – even gaining the support of Prime Minister David Cameron – given his ability to meet political targets for the NHS and drive the QIPP savings agenda. 

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has publicly backed Sir David throughout since the publication of the Francis report, said: “Under Sir David Nicholson’s leadership, NHS waiting times have fallen, infection rates reduced, and mixed sex accommodation is at an all-time low.

“His job has often been incredibly complex and very difficult, and yet he has always had a reputation for staying calm, and maintaining a relentless focus on what makes a difference on the NHS frontline.”

Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation – which represents NHS managers - said: “Sir David came into office as NHS chief executive in 2006 and immediately led a major recovery from the deficit that the health service faced at that time. Over subsequent years he led the delivery of a remarkable reduction in waiting times for urgent and elective care, with access to treatment improving faster than almost any comparable health system.

“There have been significant improvements in patient outcomes and a huge reduction in healthcare acquired infections. In recent years, he presided over the largest structural reform in the history of the NHS.”

“NHS England will now need to look forward and appoint a leader who must empower the local clinicians and managers heading up the new commissioning system so that it can deliver what is needed in the years ahead.”