The Department of Health is downplaying Mark Britnell’s departure for the private sector, insisting the world class commissioning programme will not flounder without him.

HSJ exclusively revealed online that Mr Britnell is to leave his DH job of director general of commissioning and system management for a job at accountancy firm KPMG, where he is expected to play a leading role in its European health practice.

HSJ understands Mr Britnell has asked the Cabinet Office for permission to take up an appointment outside the civil service and has voluntarily stood aside while this process takes place.

A DH source said there was “no indication” of when Mr Britnell’s post would be filled, whether the successful candidate would be of a similar level to Mr Britnell or whether the candidate would carry out a similar role.

He said: “Mark Britnell is just an individual - the agenda hasn’t changed.”

Primary care trust managers warned the post must be filled quickly amid fears that the commissioning agenda could lose focus at a critical time.

One source, who asked not to be named, said: “There’s a bit of worry and a sense we need someone as strong if not necessarily in the same style as Mark to balance the David Flory view of the world, which is not necessarily quite so sympathetic.”

NHS Confederation PCT network director David Stout said: “We do need strong leadership in the department for commissioning and system reform.

“It’s not a time to lose direction - if anything it’s even more important given the looming financial position.”

Mr Britnell has been the leading reformer in the NHS management team. He launched the world class commissioning drive, and has always been a staunch advocate of private sector involvement in the NHS. He recently established the Co-operation and Competition Panel to ensure fair access to the healthcare market and prior to that he set up the framework for securing external support for commissioners (FESC) to encourage private sector involvement in world class commissioning.

Westminster PCT chief executive Michael Scott urged the DH to fill the post quickly but said the world class commissioning programme amounted to more than Mr Britnell. “We mustn’t fall into a cult of the personality here - it’s more than one man.”

But Hull PCT chief executive Chris Long said: “I think we’re going to be sorry to lose him and he’s going to be a hard act to replace.”

Mr Britnell was unavailable for comment.