England’s chief nursing officer announces retirement

Dame Ruth May, England’s chief nursing officer, has announced her retirement.

She described her career in the health service, which has spanned almost four decades, as a “privilege”.

Announcing her decision to step back in a post on X, Dame Ruth said: “My role as CNO has, undoubtedly, been the highlight of my career in the NHS and has been a privilege.

“Throughout this time, I have had the honour of caring for patients and worked alongside fantastic colleagues.

“Although recent years have been the most challenging for the NHS, nurses, midwives, nursing associates and health and care support staff have together achieved so much.

“I am and will always be proud to be a nurse.”

Dame Ruth started as a nurse in training in 1985 and took up the post of England’s chief nursing officer (CNO) in January 2019.

Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, she helped steer the response from the midwifery and care professions.

In June of that year, she was reportedly dropped from a Number 10 press briefing for refusing to defend Dominic Cummings.

King Charles III’s 75th birthday
Dame Ruth May with the King (Toby Melville/PA)

Mr Cummings, who was chief adviser to then-prime minister Boris Johnson at the time, had come under fire for moving his family 260 miles to Durham to stay on his parents’ farm.

Dame Ruth was awarded a DBE a part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Honours in June 2022.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said: “Throughout her career, Ruth has worked tirelessly to nurture the next generations of NHS nursing and midwifery leaders, and to support nurses, nursing associates, midwives and healthcare support staff to do their very best for their patients and families.

“This was never more important, and more visible, than during the pandemic, when Ruth led the nursing and midwifery professions’ response, for which I am enormously grateful.”

Ms Pritchard said Dame Ruth also “worked effectively behind the scenes” to ensure “real improvements for staff and patients”.

“I will personally miss Ruth’s dedication and commitment to the NHS, to the professions she leads, and to our patients, which comes across so strongly in everything she does,” she said.

“Ruth leaves big shoes to fill, but I am grateful that she will stay with us for a while yet as we start the search for our next CNO, giving us all plenty of time to say our personal thanks and goodbyes.”

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said she is “deeply grateful” to Dame Ruth.

“As chief nursing officer, Ruth has helped strengthen the nursing and midwifery workforce, championing career development and mental health,” she added.

“She also played an instrumental role in helping to steer the professions through the pandemic, and was a key driver in helping us meet our commitment of more than 50,000 extra nurses in the NHS.

“We all owe her a great deal and I wish her all the best in the future.”

In December 2022, Dame Ruth is understood to have joined striking nurses on the picket line at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London.

Reports at the time suggested she had said she supports striking nurses and called for ministers to reach an urgent resolution with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

Speaking of Dame Ruth’s retirement, Professor Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive at the RCN, said: “Ruth has been the strongest ambassador for nursing over five very difficult years for our profession.

“We have worked extremely closely in recent years and her personal support and wise counsel has been invaluable.

“On behalf of hundreds of thousands of nursing staff working in England today, the RCN thanks Ruth for her service and her leadership. We wish her the very best for the future and urge her to stay close to the college and profession in the years to come.”