A WORKING life spent in the NHS will come to an end next week when Professor Idris Williams retires, reports Michaela Robinson-Tate.

Prof Williams is leaving Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust, of which he has been chairman since it was created in 1998.

He was a medical student in 1948 when the NHS was formed, and was previously a non-executive director at the former Furness Hospitals.

He became chairman following a huge merger of three organisations into the current one trust which runs Kendal's Westmorland General Hospital, the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, and Furness General Hospital in Barrow and has continued to oversee big changes.

As chairman, Prof Williams, 75, has been a non-executive director, and has been responsible for running the board.

He said it was the unexpected such as the outbreak of legionnaires' disease in Barrow in 2002 - which provided some of the biggest challenges. The trust ultimately coped very effectively, which Prof Williams said was because of the ability of his hospital manager board colleagues.

Born and schooled in Lancashire, he practised as a GP in his home county and in central Manchester.

He became professor of general practice at the University of Nottingham; worked as a family physician in the USA; undertook development work in Europe; and was an adviser to the Department of Health on primary care. His special research interest is care of the elderly.

It is unusual to have a health trust chairman who is medically qualified, but Prof Williams said it had been helpful to him, and he hoped it had been welcome to staff.

As a leader, Prof Williams said he had made a habit of meeting staff and talking to interesting people: "I do a lot of work in corridors."

He remains positive about the constant changes within the NHS, and said that many of them were to do with improvements in treatment, mentioning the cardiac unit at Kendal; the breast screening unit at the RLI; and the oncology unit at FGH.

However, with all change he said: "The question to ask is, are we, as a result of this change, going to be able to look after patients in a better way?' that's my bottom line."

When asked about the trust's current financial difficulties, which are forcing it to look for millions of pounds in savings and to shut beds, Prof Williams said he was disappointed that he was leaving during such tough times.

The cuts have prompted fresh concerns about the future of Kendal's WGH, and Prof Williams said he waqs a supporter of the hospital site: "It's a much-loved hospital and a lot of good work, and very good care is delivered through this hospital."

Having spent four days a week in the post, Prof Williams will be following his own advice for retirement by keeping active, and continuing with his interest in care of the elderly, and the management of long-term conditions in older people.

He will also be climbing more mountains, and spending time at home in the Lyth Valley with his wife, Kathleen, and six grandchildren.

He said his proudest achievement had been the development of the undergraduate teaching programme with Liverpool University - which will shortly see the trust become a university teaching hospital - and the training and development opportunities for all staff.

"I have enjoyed the privilege enormously and I have enjoyed working with the people they are very, very good people and I will miss the colleagues."

Trust chief executive Ian Cumming paid tribute to Prof Williams's "huge contribution," adding: "He will be sorely missed and a very hard act to follow."

l William Bingley has been appointed as acting chairman of Morecambe Bay Primary Care Trust from December 1, replacing Cathy Lubelska, who was recently appointed as chairman of Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust. The appointment will be for the remaining life of the PCT, in recognition of the likelihood of it being subject to an organisational change next year.