Published: 17/04/2003, Volume II3, No. 5851 Page 7

The departure of Dr Peter Homa as chief inspector of the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection has left possible successors wondering if the role of chief inspector is a poisoned chalice.

As HSJ went to press, the only front runner publicly to admit any interest in the vacancy is Tim Matthews, who has been chief executive of the Highways Agency for the last three years.

Chief executive of Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital trust from 1993-2000, Mr Matthews was understood to have applied for the CHAI post last year, but withdrew after deciding the job was likely to go to Dr Homa.

This week he described the CHAI position as 'challenging'.He said: 'I have never shirked from challenging roles. I have no current plans to apply for this position, but I am considering it.'

Another possible candidate is Ron Kerr, chief executive of the National Care Standards Commission, which discovered it would disappear just 17 days after launch, with its role inspecting private hospitals handed to CHAI.

Mr Kerr is also understood to have applied for the chief executive job at CHAI during the last recruitment crisis.

One source described Mr Kerr as a 'manager's manager', who had managed NCSC extremely well despite the intense pressure from Whitehall. Mr Kerr was unavailable for comment.

Another contender is former army officer Peter Wilkinson - now head of health at the Audit Commission. He is described as 'mild mannered' in the Dr Homa mould and, importantly, he developed performance indicators for local government.

Mr Wilkinson took up his post at the Audit Commission in 2001 and has been working with CHI on how the overall performance on the NHS can be best presented to the public.

He has also stressed in public that he wants the Audit Commission to work in a 'strong partnership' with CHAI and is a staunch defender of the commission's independence from government departments.

One SHA source said: 'Peter Wilkinson seems the obvious candidate simply because he has had no experience as a chief executive and therefore It is possible for him to adapt to the role [Professor Sir Ian Kennedy] is expecting.'

But the difficulties surrounding Dr Homa's departure appear to have persuaded many potential contenders not to throw their hats into the ring.

Stephen Thornton, until 2001 chief executive of the NHS Confederation and now chief executive at PPP Healthcare Medical Trust, also ruled out any interest in the role.

North East London strategic health authority chief executive Ron de Witt, who was also understood to have applied for the post previously, 'categorically' said he would not be interested in the role.

Commentators also questioned whether Lord Hunt, the recently departed junior health minister who used his resignation over the Iraq war to fire parting shots at CHI and what he felt was the insufficient number of senior managers in some of its review teams, might be an outside choice.

But Lord Hunt told HSJ he would 'categorically not' be interested in the job.