Health secretary Andrew Lansley has formally appointed Sir David Nicholson as the first chief executive of the NHS commissioning board.

Mr Lansley made the announcement to NHS chief executives this afternoon, HSJ understands.

The DH confirmed in a statement: “Sir David Nicholson has been appointed the chief executive of the new NHS Commissioning Board. Sir David will continue in his current role as chief executive of the NHS until the establishment of the new [board] in April 2012.”

Mr Lansley said in the statement: “I am delighted to announce that I have appointed Sir David to be the new chief executive. Sir David has already made a fantastic contribution to the NHS during a career of great distinction.

“He is highly regarded in the NHS and has the knowledge and experience to drive through the ambitious reform programme ahead and to provide leadership and continuity during the forthcoming changes.“

Sir David added: “It is a privilege to lead the NHS and to be asked to continue to provide leadership as chief executive of the [board]. I have always been focused on improving quality, on giving more power to patients, and on working with clinicians to deliver change.

“The coming period demands much of the service and its leaders in a challenging financial environment, but creates the opportunity for us to deliver real improvements for patients.  I am confident we will be able to take that opportunity and I am pleased to be asked to play a part in this.”

The board’s full senior team is expected to be appointed in the autumn. Sir David, current NHS chief executive, had not been widely expected to take on the full time chief executive role.

However, he has received significant praise for identifying that the NHS needs to make up to £20bn in efficiency savings at an early stage, including recent recognition from Stephen Dorrell, former Conservative health secretary and chair of the Commons health select committee.

Sources said the commissioning board, led by Sir David, would have an initial £400m annual budget.