news focus: After being beaten with placards and tackling the aftermath of Beverly Allitt's murders, Allister Stewart is bidding the NHS farewell. Jennifer Trueland meets him

Published: 16/05/2002, Volume II2, No. 5805 Page 16 17

One wet morning in Cardiff, Allister Stewart woke up wondering what he had done wrong. Then chief executive of University Hospital of Wales trust, he had turned down the job offered to him after a trust merger and had been made redundant. Plus, his marriage was at an end.

So what's a boy in those circumstances to do? 'I went back to my parents in Dundee, ' he says ruefully. 'Then I heard about this job [as chief executive of Lothian University Hospitals trust].'

That was three years ago. Today, Mr Stewart is happier. He has just handed in his notice, after 30 years in the NHS, covering three governments and six reorganisations, and is to join a healthcare management consultancy.

On the personal front, things are looking up, too. Following his divorce, he has been reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Isobel.

'I am madly in love with her, she's my soulmate, ' he says. Some might say Mr Stewart deserves a little calm in his life. From his first NHS post in Tayside to his most recent in Edinburgh, he has faced more challenges than average.

He was the manager put into the trust in Grantham where Beverly Allitt had been killing child patients. Though not in post when the murders took place, Mr Stewart faced parents' fury and was even followed home from the hospital. Earlier in his career, he had incited public fury with plans to close a Leicestershire hospital, Bosworth Park Infirmary. After a public meeting, he was beaten over the head with a placard.

Later in Wales, he was responsible for closing the Cardiff Royal Infirmary. 'I wasn't hit that time but I was screamed at and called a fat cat, ' he says.

He was also criticised for receiving a£200,000 pay-off from University Hospital of Wales, when he had stepped into a new job almost at once (he later paid some of it back).

In Lothian, he has been condemned for making hard decisions to bring the trust back into budget, with staff cuts at a time when the new, private finance initiativebuilt Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was still garnering hostility.

But it could all have been different. The young Allister had hoped to become a footballer. Indeed, he was attached to Dundee United as a schoolboy, 'But [legendary manager] Jim McLean threw me out.'

Deciding not to go to university, he took a friend's advice and joined Tayside health board. He was lucky to fall under the wing of staff officer Willie Farquhar - the first of several mentors.

When Mr Farquhar moved to Edinburgh, so did the young Mr Stewart. 'I was part of his squad, ' he grins, remarking that Alan Langlands (now Sir Alan, the former NHS chief executive) was another. 'He encouraged me to get academic qualifications and to go and work in England. He was a great role model.'

Mr Stewart moved to Leicestershire in 1979, to the sleepy town of Market Harborough. That was to bring his first brushes with the press.

'We had an outbreak of flu at the hospital over the Easter period, so there wasn't much news about.

Somehow it got out, wrongly, that it was green monkey disease.

Funnily enough, I was interviewed by that reporter who later went rather strange, David Icke.'

After several years in Leicestershire, which included masterminding the move towards community-based care in mental health services (he also closed the well-known Carlton Hayes Hospital), Mr Stewart received a call from Trent regional office to 'discuss a local difficulty'.

He was told of reports that one of its nurses (at Grantham and Kestevan Hospital) had been murdering patients and they asked me to run the hospital. By the time I arrived, Beverly Allitt had been arrested and charged.'

Mr Stewart describes the following two years as the most difficult of his career. 'The parents in particular wanted to project their anger at the establishment, and I represented that, 'he says. 'The anger was incredible. At one stage I was followed home, which I found frightening. I just drove very fast so they wouldn't find out where I lived.'

He describes a meeting with one mother after the trial. 'She said she had seen me on TV and had hated me, that she could have done anything if she'd got her hands on me.'

The media turned their glare on him. 'They were trying to find out if I was a drunk or a philanderer, ' he says, stressing he is neither.

Incidentally, the team formed to cope with the trauma included Guy Black, now director of newspaper watchdog the Press Complaints Commission.

Mr Stewart admits he aged at least five years over that time. 'I should have got myself counselling, which I didn't do. Too strong and Scottish for that, ' he says. Instead, he requested a sabbatical and worked with the World Health Organisation in Copenhagen for six months.

This gave him an insight into continental Europe's healthcare systems, which left him more impressed with the British system than he had imagined. 'Every country is struggling with the same dilemmas, ' he says. 'But I think the UK government has got it right and healthcare has to be funded from general taxation.'

Turn to the NHS in Scotland, however, and Mr Stewart is less supportive of government. He fears that creeping centralisation (his word) will mean an end to management and a return to administrating. He is looking with envy at health secretary Alan Milburn's proposal to set free successful hospital management teams in England- what he calls a return to foundation trusts.

'In Scotland you can feel that pull from the centre, whether It is being told to appoint disinfectant nurses or any other initiatives. But central management on that scale is not sustainable.'

When he joined Lothian trust, Mr Stewart committed to five years but he is leaving after three.

Why? 'Isobel sat me down and asked me why I want to do what I do and the seeds were sown. I've had 30 years of being driven. I knew, at 48, if I wanted a second career this was the time to do it.

We have finished phase one of the new Royal, on time and on budget.

It seems a good time to go.'