Obituary: Alasdair Liddell CBE, Perthshire-born driving force behind the modern National Health Service

Alasdair Liddell CBE
Alasdair Liddell CBE
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Born: 15 January, 1949, in Pitlochry, Perthshire. Died: 31 December, 2012, in Glasgow, aged 63

ALASDAIR Liddell, who died on New Year’s Eve, was one of the architects of Britain’s health strategy within the NHS from the late 1980s through to the 1990s, including the creation of NHS Direct – round-the-clock health advice by phone and later online and digitally. As director of planning at the NHS during the last years of the 20th century, he guided national strategy and priorities during a time of considerable reform and modernisation, much of it down to his own vision. Always an innovative thinker since growing up in Perthshire, he was a passionate supporter of the national health system and constantly sought new ways of improving it. In all, he spent the last 16 years of the 20th century as a senior executive, and a driving force, in the NHS.

Liddell was one of the first to realise that the “old” NHS had to move with the times, from its 
almost obsessive focus on meeting targets to modernisation of its methods and infrastructure, and thereby real, tangible success 
in terms of positive results for patients.

He was also known in the NHS as the first person in the organisation to send an e-mail from a train, in the mid-1990s. It sounds routine now, but e-mail was a new phenomenon at the time, and certainly not one readily used on trains. That was also several years before he helped give birth to NHS Direct, first as a telephone service, now as an online and digital refuge used by millions.

Liddell had senior and influential roles in the Department of Health or the NHS from 1988 to 2000, when he left Whitehall after reputed policy differences with government ministers. When he quit, he had been NHS director of planning for six years, since 1994, with responsibility for national strategy, information and IT, new media, general communications and other key policy areas. His brief had also been extended beyond health to social care. He was responsible for the 1996 white paper, A Service with Ambitions, which addressed quality and professionalism within the NHS and, in doing so, cried out for improvement.

After Labour’s election victory in 1997, he led the NHS team which created, for government ministers, the white paper titled The New NHS, which laid the foundations for much of Tony Blair’s health policies, indeed for many of the policies which continue today. Liddell could safely be said to have been a driving force behind the modern NHS.

After leaving Whitehall in 2000, he went on to become an independent health strategy consultant, including for Bell Pottinger Group and, from 2005, Healthcare Locums plc, where he was non-executive deputy chairman when the firm was found to have significant financial irregularities a few years ago. When Healthcare Locums’ chief executive was dramatically kicked out, Liddell was instrumental in stabilising the company, working with banks and investors and heading off a shareholder revolt. He quit the board in March 2011 once he’d helped establish a new management team. Perhaps more important to him was his work as a consultant to charitable foundations such as the Young’s Foundation for social change (of which he is a Fellow) and the King’s Fund, which seeks ways of improving the health system.

Although he had long since been away from NHS leadership, in 2010 he was named chairman of an expert panel set up to advise ministers on the NHS Innovation Challenge Prize programme, set up to reward new ideas to tackle healthcare issues.

The programme has awarded prizes of up to £100,000 for innovative ideas to improve the NHS. He lived in London but was visiting friends in Runachan, Kintyre, when he suffered an aneurysm on Hogmanay and died in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital.

Alasdair Liddell was born in Pitlochry, Perthshire, on 15 January 1949. He attended Fettes College in Edinburgh before going south to study Jurisprudence at Oxford University (Balliol College), graduating BA (Hons) in 1970. In 1976, he married BBC staffer Jenny Abramsky (now Dame Jenny) and they would have a son and daughter.

After working as an executive in several hospitals, he became chief of the East Anglian Regional Health Authority where, in 1990, he pioneered what would become the famous “Rubber Windmill”. It was a simulation process involving clinicians, health managers, journalists and others which tested the government’s plans to introduce internal markets to the NHS.

Liddell’s simulation pushed the government to alter its approach and the “Rubber Windmill” idea is still used to this day, not least by the King’s Fund.

Liddell was awarded the CBE in 1997 for services to the NHS. In his spare time, he enjoyed good wine, cycling and skiing. He had learnt to ski in the Cairngorms at the age of three, in the days before modern ski lifts, when you had to walk up the hill under your own steam.

Alasdair Liddell is survived by his wife, Dame Jenny, a longtime BBC executive who now chairs the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by their son Rob and daughter Maia, both well-known TV 
producers.

PHIL DAVISON