Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson resigns

Sir Liam Donaldson, Britain’s most senior medical officer who has led public health drives to ban smoking in public places and control swine flu, is to step down after 12 years in the role.

The Times understands that Sir Liam wrote to Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, on Monday to announce his intention to hand over the reins next May.

Sir Liam, the Chief Medical Officer for England and the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser, has been in post since 1998. During his tenure he has pushed through several major public health campaigns, including the smoking ban, drives to improve safety in surgery and tackle Britain’s binge drinking culture.

Sir Liam delayed his resignation to see England and Wales through flu pandemic

Sir Liam delayed his resignation to see England and Wales through flu pandemic

He is expected to reiterate the urgent need for action on alcohol this week with a final report on its destructive impact on the young.

The issue has seen him run into high-profile confrontations with the Government, which controversially dismissed his calls for a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Earlier this year Gordon Brown criticised the measure as inappropriate, despite widespread support from doctors and public health experts.

The role of chief medical officer became even more prominent this year with the outbreak of swine flu. It is believed that Sir Liam decided up to 12 months ago that he wished to step down, but decided to stay in post to lead the country’s response to the pandemic. He has held press conferences every week since May.

As one of the longest serving chief medical officers since the role was introduced in 1858, Sir Liam has produced landmark reports, which have set health policy and legislation in fields such as stem cell research, quality and safety of health care, infectious disease control, patient empowerment, poor clinical performance, smoke free public places, medical regulation, and organ and tissue retention.

He is the UK’s key adviser to the Health Secretary, the Prime Minister and other government ministers. The role holds critical responsibilities across the whole field of public health and health care.

Sir Liam’s departure will leave a substantial hole in the Department of Health, with the hunt already on for a suitable replacement. The successor will be thrown into the ongoing surveillance of, and response to, the H1N1 virus, as well as keeping pressure on the Government over its failure to bring drinking under control.

Figures released recently show that alcohol-related hospital admissions have risen sharply in recent years. Almost one million hospital admissions were linked to relating last year, with doctors and MPs warning of alcohol-related illnesses reaching epidemic proportions.

Sir Liam is also recognised as an international champion of patient safety and has Chaired the World Health Organisation World Alliance for Patient Safety since its launch in 2004.

Before becoming CMO, Sir Liam held posts in hospital medicine and surgery, general practice, public health, academic medicine, and health care management.

In his resignation letter Sir Liam said: “I have been immensely privileged to serve in this post over the past nearly 12 years. I have been pleased to see many of my policy recommendations – stem cell research, smoke-free public places, reforms to the General Medical Council, changes to consent for organ and tissue retention and the creation of the Health Protection Agency – carried forward into legislation.

“I have been pleased too, that reforms I proposed to improve quality and safety of NHS care – clinical governance, a patient safety programme, procedures to identify, and prevent harm from, poor clinical practice – are fully embedded in the service and have been also adopted in many other parts of the world.”

The Prime Minister issued a statement in response thanking Sir Liam for his “outstanding work”. Mr Brown said that his leadership on the smoking ban, organ donation and swine flu had “saved many, many lives”.

Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, said: “I am personally indebted to him for his clear and calm advice on dealing with the swine flu pandemic. His leadership and reassurance have taken the NHS and the country through a challenging year, and his preparations for this moment over many years put us in the best position to deal with it.

“Liam is one of those rare people who combines great intellect with warmth and humanity. He will, I am sure, go down as one of the great CMOs.”


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