More than half of primary care trusts are missing permanent executive directors, an HSJ investigation has found.

Detailed research into the board positions at 35 randomly selected PCTs found of a total 278 executive board posts just under one fifth were filled with interim recruits, had recently merged with other roles or had their director seconded away.

The PCTs include Bromley, whose chief executive Simon Robbins was seconded to lead the south east London commissioning sector in April. His post has been covered on an interim basis by board member Clive Uren, whose post the PCT is not actively recruiting to fill.

The board’s professional executive committee nurse member left last month. Her post is the only one out of 49 investigated by HSJ for which a replacement was being actively recruited.

The PCT’s interim communications manager said: “Nobody’s going to be doing anything in the short term because nobody knows what’s coming out of Number 10 or the secretary of state. It would be foolish to plough on regardless when we’re contracting with someone and it may be difficult to get out of later on.”

The number of missing senior board members points to a looming crisis of leadership in commissioning organisations.

Some chief executive and chair posts have not been permanently filled. That includes NHS Bassetlaw, whose chief executive has been on an “open secondment” to NHS Yorkshire and the Humber since last October and has been replaced by an interim. A spokeswoman for the PCT said the changes were unrelated to changes in government policy.

At NHS Bury both the chief executive and chair are interims and the director of finance is working a notice period. A new finance director has been seconded from another NHS organisation. Interim chief executive John Boyington told HSJ the PCT would recruit a permanent chief executive once a new chair was in place.

He said: “There are some question marks over future configurations while we await the white paper [which will set out the government’s programme].”

Earlier this week HSJ revealed online that NHS London was in crisis talks with the Department of Health and Appointments Commission over concerns it could become technically inquorate.

The SHA’s chair and another non-executive resigned last month and a further three announced their resignations on Tuesday. That leaves just three non-executive directors and five executive directors. The rules state decisions cannot be passed without one third of the board present, including the chair and another non-executive.

NHS facing brain drain as leaders look for exit