The outgoing NHS chief executive, who took up his role in charge of NHS England on 1 April 2014, will become a life peer upon standing down and take up a seat in the House of Lords.
NHS England chair Lord David Prior hailed Sir Simon for leading the health service through its ‘greatest ever challenges’.
Lord Prior said: ‘Simon has successfully led the NHS through the worst pandemic in a century, the greatest funding squeeze since the second world war, and unprecedented political volatility working alongside three prime ministers and four chancellors against the backdrop of three general elections and a referendum.’
NHS long-term plan
Sir Simon called the five-year deal ‘the biggest boost to general practice in more than 15 years’ – promising a more than £1bn rise in practice funding over five years and £1.8bn channeled through primary care networks that were set up as part of the five-year package.
Just over a year after taking on the role of NHS chief executive, Sir Simon said he regarded himself as ‘probably the most pro-primary care/GP national NHS figure there has been, possibly ever’.
He promised to ‘try and redress a decade’s worth of relative underinvestment in primary care’, but warned: ‘The quid pro quo is there has got to be significant changes in the way that the model works. And I think that GPs, for the most part, are up for that.’
Changing general practice
General practice has seen significant change in the eight years since NHS England became operational in April 2013.
The rapid decline in GP partners’ income following a peak after the landmark 2004 GP contract deal has been slowed – and PCNs have brought the promise of additional staff to support the profession.
However, 1,483 practices in England have closed or merged since NHS England took shape – and average patient lists have risen to almost 9,200 from less than 7,000 in 2013.
Meanwhile, government promises to increase the GP workforce have failed to materialise, and numbers of GP partners have continued to slump. Numbers of GP trainees have increased markedly in recent years – but the rising toll of workload in general practice has led to warnings from the BMA and RCGP that the profession is under unmanageable pressure, and these pressures have mounted to unprecendented levels through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commeting on his departure, the BMA said Sir Simon had ‘sought to maintain the rightful independence of the NHS, challenging and taking on government when necessary, including fighting hard for increased funding for services – and said he had played a ‘critical role’ in overseeing the health service response to the pandemic.
Senior health figures and politicians have lined up to pay tribute to the outgoing NHS chief executive – with prime minister Boris Johnson, former prime minister Tony Blair – for whom Sir Simon served as a senior adviser – and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer among those offering thanks. Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said he had been a ‘sage and steadfast leader’ for the NHS.
Former RCGP chair Professor Dame Clare Gerada said he would be a ‘hard act to follow’. She said: ‘The NHS has been through great turmoil, not just during the pandemic but in the lean years before. It is down to Simon’s brave and independent-minded leadership that we have got through these difficult times and that the NHS is in good shape.
‘The fact that he has worked so tirelessly and stayed leading the NHS through its greatest test when he could have gone last summer is a testament to what a principled and honourable man he is.
‘So no one will begrudge his decision to stand down now, but he’s going to be greatly missed and an incredibly hard act to follow. Simon has done an extraordinary job and this country owes him a huge debt of gratitude.’
Another former RCGP chair, current chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges Professor Helen Stokes Lampard said: ‘Simon has rightly earned the respect of the medical profession by championing the needs of all patients, listening carefully to clinicians and frontline staff, and by working collaboratively to agree and implement the bold strategic direction he set out in the Five-year forward view and subsequent NHS long-term plan.’