The outgoing boss of the NHS in England has revealed he plans to spend the next stage of his career defending the health service from newspapers which “hate the NHS”.
Sir David Nicholson, who will retire next month, said he hopes to work with the post-Leveson press regulator in a bid to stop public confidence in the health service being undermined by sensational stories.
He told the Health Service Journal the idea of free healthcare “is not in my view naturally the bedfellow of some of our national newspapers”.
The chief executive of NHS England argued he is not looking to join a proposed new press regulator to prevent criticism of individuals in the NHS or “stop the Daily Mail doing whatever it does”. Instead, he said, he wants to ensure that greater transparency on the part of the NHS is not exploited by newspapers to tell sensational stories.
His comments about the Daily Mail come a year after the paper called for his resignation and labelled him “the man with no shame” in the wake of the Francis Report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal.
While not directly criticising him, the Francis report highlighted the failings of health authorities responsible for Mid Staffs, which were led by Sir David at the time poor care was being carried out at the hospital. It also contained damning criticism of an NHS system which ignored warnings of poor care. Sir David said a new press regulator would have an important role to play at a time when the NHS is attempting to become more open about care failings in order to learn from mistakes.
“We’ve got to have a media and a context which is supportive of that happening,” he told HSJ, adding it would be important to avoid coverage which could lead to staff being “frightened or hiding things”: a situation he said would be “really dangerous”.
“My real worry is… we get attacked and what gets undermined is the principle of public services [and] public confidence,” he added. Asked if newspaper coverage had been driven by a desire to attack the public sector he said there was an “element” of that. “It’s no accident is it that people who led it hate the NHS?” he added. He said he had never worked with politicians who did not support the NHS.
Sir David will retire in April after 36 years with the health service. He became chief executive in September 2006 after a string of senior positions in hospital and health service management.
He will be replaced by Tony Blair’s former adviser on health, Simon Stevens, who has spent the past nine years as a senior executive at US private health giant UnitedHealth. Sir David said he also wanted to promote and advise in other countries which wanted to set up a health service similar to the NHS.