Outgoing NHS England chief executive Sir David Nicholson has said he “bitterly” regrets not doing more to engage with the families of patients who died as a result of care failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust.

“When the Healthcare Commission reported on Mid Staffordshire… I went to [Stafford Hospital],” he said. “I didn’t seek out the patients’ representatives and the people who were in [campaign group] Cure The NHS. I made the wrong call.”

Sir David, who has been the NHS’s top official for the last eight years and will be retiring from his role at the end of this month, explained he chose not to engage directly with those people at the time in order to avoid a “media circus”. However, he said: “That was a mistake that I bitterly regret.”

Speaking at NHS England’s Health and Care Innovation Expo, he also explained his rationale for not resigning at the time of the findings into the Francis report into the failings, despite widespread calls for him to do so.           

“Firstly, because I thought that there was a danger in the fallout from Mid Staffordshire that it would turn horribly negative for the NHS,” he said.

“I thought we could use it as a catalyst to do some exciting and interesting things which I think we should have done some time [previously] but never did. I thought I had some ideas about how we could do that.

“Secondly, I genuinely thought it would be irresponsible to go at that moment in time. At that point in the commissioning side of the NHS we had 50,000 people who didn’t know what their futures were and I thought it would have been irresponsible to wander off.” 

Sir David, who was chief executive of Shropshire and Staffordshire Strategic Health Authority during 2005 and 2006 – part of the period investigated by Sir Robert Francis QC, was accused during the inquiry of having a “dangerous attitude” due to his insistence care failings at Mid Staffordshire were not “systemic”.

He will be replaced in April by Simon Stevens, a former health advisor to Tony Blair, who is stepping down from his current role as executive vice-president of US-based healthcare company UnitedHealth Group.