UK Government

Department of Health (National): Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson to retire from his role in the summer

Press Release   •   Dec 16, 2009 11:28 GMT

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, will step down in May 2010 after 12 years of service, the longest serving Chief Medical Officer of modern times.

Sir Liam is the 15th person to take up the independent role since the first Chief Medical Officer was appointed in 1855 as a response to the cholera epidemics that swept Victorian England.

Since 1998, Sir Liam has been at the forefront of reforms to the NHS and major improvements to the country’s public health. His work and policy recommendations in the role have led to many reforms including:

• Smokefree public places and work places;
• the creation of the Health Protection Agency;
• the introduction of clinical governance in the NHS;
• the setting up of the National Patient Safety Agency;
• new legislation for research using embryonic cells; 
• new legislation on consent for removal of organs and tissues; and
• action plans in key areas of infectious disease control such as tuberculosis, West Nile fever and health care associated infection.

In keeping with the traditions of the post, Sir Liam holds critical responsibilities across the whole field of health and healthcare. He is the United Kingdom’s chief adviser on health issues and advises the Secretary of State for Health, the Prime Minister and other Government Ministers. He represents the United Kingdom in international fora including the World Health Organization.

Most recently, Sir Liam has been central to the UK’s response to the swine flu pandemic. As chair of the Pandemic Influenza Programme Board, he oversaw the development of the National Flu Pandemic Framework in 2007. This enabled preparation for a pandemic in an integrated manner. The plans have been successfully implemented in this first pandemic of influenza for 40 years.

Since taking up the post of Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam has also been involved in responding to high profile issues of public concern, including the retention and storage of children’s organs at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, the clinical audit of the practice of Dr Harold Shipman and the response to the  inquiry into the children’s heart surgery service at Bristol Royal Infirmary.

Sir Liam originally envisaged leaving his post when he turned 60 in mid-2009.  However, he agreed to stay in his role as Chief Medical Officer to supervise the response to the swine flu pandemic. He has stated that, if the pandemic should unexpectedly worsen, he will extend his tenure beyond May 2010.

In his resignation letter to the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, 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 said in response to the news of Sir Liam’s resignation:

“I want to thank Sir Liam Donaldson for his outstanding work as Chief Medical Officer for England since 1998. He has made an extraordinary contribution to the nation's health, from championing the ban on smoking in public places, to tackling the shortage of donated organs and most recently leading our response to the swine flu pandemic. 

“His leadership and action in these areas and others will have saved many, many lives. I and the whole country are extremely grateful for all he has done and wish him all the best for the future.”

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said:

“Sir Liam has fulfilled his duties in this important public office with great distinction, wisdom and good humour. He has brought courage and foresight to the role of improving the nation's health. His bold and once-controversial proposal to turn public places smoke-free shows the difference he has made.

“I am sure I speak for all my predecessors in saying it has been a privilege to work with him. 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.”

In his reply to Sir Liam, Sir Gus O’Donnell, stated:

“I would like to pay tribute to Sir Liam’s work over the last 12 years. He has displayed the highest qualities of the civil service, drawing on his extensive personal expertise to provide advice to Ministers and leadership in public health. I’d like to thank Sir Liam for his tireless efforts.”

Details for plans about succession for the post will be announced in due course.

Notes to editors

1. The role

The Chief Medical Officer represents the Government, the medical profession and the public. The role goes beyond a simple advisory remit. The CMO’s responsibilities are to:

• Prepare policies and plans and implement programmes to protect the health of the public. 
• Promote and take action to improve the health of the population and reduce health inequalities. 
• Lead initiatives within the NHS to enhance the quality, safety and standards in clinical services. 
• Prepare or review policy in particular areas of health or health care (as the senior doctor within Government). For example, this can be in areas where there is public concern or controversy (organ retention), in new and emerging fields of medical science (stem cells), or where there is a need for change to the medical workforce (Senior House Officer report).

2. Full biography

Professor Sir Liam Donaldson has held this historic post since 1998, only the 15th person to do so since the first Chief Medical Officer was appointed as a response to the cholera epidemics that swept Victorian England.
In keeping with the traditions of the post, he holds critical responsibilities across the whole field of health and healthcare. He is also the United Kingdom’s chief adviser on health issues and advises the Secretary of State for Health, the Prime Minister and other government Ministers. He represents the United Kingdom in international fora including the World Health Organization.
Since coming into post, Professor Sir Liam has created landmark reports aimed at radically transforming important areas of health care, for example: 

• The country's first comprehensive health protection strategy (Getting ahead of the curve) 
• Legislative change in relation to organ and tissue retention (The removal, retention and use of human organs and tissue from post-mortem examination) 
• New legislation to permit regulated use of stem cells for research (Stem cell research: Medical progress with responsibility) 
• Poor clinical performance (Supporting doctors, protecting patients) 
• Patient safety (An organisation with a memory and Safety first) 
• Empowering patient self-management of chronic disease (The expert patient: a new approach to chronic disease management for the 21st century)  
• Action plans in key areas of infectious disease control such as tuberculosis, West Nile fever and health care associated infection 
• Led on government proposals to assess and revalidate doctors on a regular basis to provide assurance that they are practising to high standards (Good doctors, safer patients) 
• Led on improvements in the quality of the medical expert witness services, introducing mentoring, supervision and peer review (Bearing good witness: Proposals for reforming the delivery of medical expert evidence in family law cases) 

As chair of the Pandemic Influenza Programme Board, he oversaw the development of the National Flu Pandemic Framework in 2007. This enabled preparation for a pandemic in an integrated manner. The plans have been successfully implemented during the emergence in the spring of 2009 of the first pandemic of influenza for 40 years.
Sir Liam’s Annual Reports, On the State of Public Health, have strongly championed the need for action on key areas of the nation’s health. His repeated calls for the introduction of smoke-free public places and workplaces led to legislation implemented on 1 July 2007 to achieve this outcome. Other Annual Reports have highlighted public health issues such as the potential obesity ‘time bomb’, the shortage of available organs for transplant, the need the address and improve the health of teenagers and a call for a minimum price on a unit of alcohol. His recommendations consistently trigger an extensive public debate on the growing concern about these issues and the need for action to address them.

Sir Liam devised and promoted the idea of Clinical Governance, a model to assure clinically-led high standards of care. Clinical governance is now an internationally recognised concept in medical care.

Since taking up the post of Chief Medical Officer, he has also been involved in responding to high profile issues of public concern, including the swine flu pandemic, the retention and storage of children’s organs at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, the clinical audit of the practice of Dr Harold Shipman, and the inquiry into the children’s heart surgery service at Bristol Royal Infirmary.

Sir Liam Donaldson has worked across all sectors of healthcare: hospital medicine, general practice, public health, academic medicine and health service management.

Initially trained as a surgeon in Birmingham, he went on to hold teaching and research posts at the University of Leicester where he also spent time in general practice. In 1986, he was appointed Regional Medical Officer and Regional Director of Public Health for the Northern Regional Health Authority. There he spearheaded wide-ranging changes to address longstanding problems in an area acknowledged to have one of the poorest overall health records in Britain. In 1994 he became Regional Director (i.e. Chief Executive Officer) for the NHS Region of Northern and Yorkshire covering the health and health care needs of a population of seven million.

Sir Liam has received many public honours:

• 14 honorary doctorates from British Universities 
• Eight fellowships from medical royal colleges and faculties 
• The Gold Medal of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh 
• The Queen’s Honorary Physician between 1996 and 1999.

He was Knighted in the 2002 New Year’s Honours List.  Sir Liam was appointed as Chancellor of Newcastle University, succeeding Lord Patten of Barnes from 1 August 2009.

Sir Liam regularly gives keynote addresses at conferences in the United Kingdom and around the world.  He is also an experienced broadcaster. He is co-author of a standard textbook of public health (Donaldsons’ Essential Public Health), a history of the Chief Medical Officers of England (The Nation’s Doctor) and over 130 papers in peer review journals. He holds an honorary Chair in Applied Epidemiology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England and a Visiting Chair in the University of Leicester.

He is recognised as an international leader in health and healthcare, particularly in the fields of public health and healthcare quality. His championing of the imperative to improve patient safety – engaging with victims and their families, politicians, policymakers and professional leaders worldwide – led directly to the establishment of the World Health Organization World Alliance for Patient Safety, which he has Chaired since its launch in 2004. This important initiative has taken action on patient safety to the level of a global concern and has engaged over 140 countries and all six regions of the World Health Organization. In 2006 Sir Liam received the Picker Institute Award for Excellence, in recognition of his achievements in the field of patient-centred care and patient safety and in 2008 he received the World Health Executive Forum Distinguished Leader Award.

3. Previous Chief Medical Officers

Sir John Simon 1855 – 1876
Dr Edward Cator Seaton 1876 – 1879
Sir George Buchanan 1879 – 1892
Sir Richard Thorne Thorne 1892 – 1899
Sir William Henry Power 1900 – 1908
Sir Arthur Newsholme 1908 – 1919
Sir George Newman 1919 – 1935
Sir Arthur MacNalty 1935 – 1940
Sir Wilson Jameson 1940 – 1950
Sir John Charles 1950 – 1960
Sir George Godber 1960 – 1973
Sir Henry Yellowlees 1973 – 1984
Sir Donald Acheson 1984 – 1991
Sir Kenneth Calman 1991 – 1998
Sir Liam Donaldson 1998 -2010

4. For further information on the role and history of the Chief Medical Officer go tohttp://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Aboutus/MinistersandDepartmentLeaders/ChiefMedicalOfficer/AboutT