Nurses should make the most of changes ahead, says Viv Bennett. Charlotte Santry meets the proud nurse tipped to be England’s chief nursing officer
More from: 'Top honours prove nurses drive change'
Deputy chief nursing officer Viv Bennett is distinctly uncomfortable under the spotlight. “Why did you want to speak to me?” she asks suspiciously as I sit down in her Richmond House office, with its sliver of a view over the Thames.
However, over the coming year she will inevitably attract growing attention. Widely tipped to succeed Dame Christine Beasley as chief nursing officer for England, the qualified health visitor was also one of the first nurse commissioners, meaning she is well positioned to inform sweeping NHS reforms.
I remind her of a comment piece she wrote for Nursing Times last year, in which she stated: “I was a commissioning nurse before they were invented”, and she smiles proudly. “What happened to me was very unusual,” she says.
While working as a community nurse manager in Oxfordshire in the early 1990s, she was approached about developing a new job that would reflect the new purchaser/provider split.
She ended up working in the role herself, looking at “the new world of purchasing and providing and what is it that nurses bring to the purchasing side”. Insights gleaned during this time made her a fierce proponent of nurse commissioning, which is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by the current administration.
“Well, who knows a lot about the needs of children and families? Health visitors do, they work with them all the time,” she states, hands slicing through the air. “Who has views about managing a population with long term conditions and keeping people out of hospital? Well, community matrons do.” Health secretary Andrew Lansley had better take note.
But her face flushes when I ask whether she believes nurses should be given a formal role on GP consortia boards. “I can’t really comment, I’m not allowed to comment,” she stammers, looking to the DH press officer to rescue her.
And she is non-committal when I ask whether she knows if nurses have been playing a big role in the pathfinder consortia announced the day of our interview: “It’s varied. They were only announced today… do you know what? I’ve been quite busy writing a health implementation plan.”
After rising to a senior role at Oxfordshire Health Authority, she became Birmingham Health Authority’s senior commissioning manager of children’s services.
This passion for families and children has provided a thread throughout her working life and, despite her obvious reservations about speaking to a journalist, she becomes incredibly animated.
“Sorry if I wave my hands about!” she apologises, as she explains how, as a student at Oxford School of Nursing in the late 1970s, she particularly enjoyed working with children and decided to work on a paediatric medical ward after qualifying, which she “loved”.
“We did a lot of work looking after children with epilepsy, doing lots of studies into epilepsy and children with cardiac problems, and it was great,” she says. This convinced her to focus on families and children, but she realised she “wanted to work with children who were well, as well as children who were sick”.
“So, I worked as a staff nurse, then did a little while on a paediatric intensive care [unit] part time and then I went to do my health visitor training, also in Oxford - Oxford Polytechnic.”
Her career has not been without plaudits: last year, she received the title of Queen’s Nurse at the Queen’s Nursing Institute’s spring award ceremony.
But achieving her goals involved some tough choices while her children, now adults, were young. Having not taken a nursing degree first time round, she gained a BA in social science with the Open University. She was later sponsored by the NHS to take a master’s degree in policy studies at the University of Bristol, which she accepts was a lucky break, but meant she “had to go away when the children were small”.
She fostered a disabled child for a short time, an experience that made her question why “we sometimes expect parents to do things that we’re nervous about getting healthcare assistants to do”. This formed her view that support staff can be trained to carry out a lot of the care given to children, despite the anxieties of many nurses about the “dilution” of skills.
Her attitude towards roles is typical of her lack of reverence towards fixed structures, demonstrated in her approach to transforming community services.
Under this policy, primary care provider arms will merge with acute trusts, mental health trusts or become community foundation trusts or social enterprises. Many community nurses are concerned about who their future employer will be and whether their terms and conditions will be retained.
But Ms Bennett is uninterested in “systems architecture”, which she says is “just stuff” to most patients. Referring to debates over whether health visitors should be aligned with GPs or based in Sure Start centres, she says: “I never like to get too tied down with that - where your office is isn’t the most important thing, you know.”
She is no policy geek, despite her role at the DH and postgraduate study. She appears neutral about current upheavals, repeatedly stressing the need to “make the most of” changes, good or bad, and citing “resilience” as the most important leadership quality.
Her real interest lies in ensuring services are working for patients, particularly families and children. “Start from the patient then work outwards to see what we need to do,” she advises. Which sounds exactly like the kind of manifesto you might expect from someone planning their move to the top of the nursing tree.
Dame Christine is due to retire in March but the future shape of the role is not yet set out. Some predict the position could be split, with one postholder in public health and the other on the NHS Commissioning Board.
Would she be interested in going for it? “It’s not something I ever aspired to do - it’s not that I went to this job thinking, ‘oh, yippee, the CNO’s about to retire and I can go for that’.
“I went for this job because it’s portfolio, it’s what I really wanted to do. So I suppose the honest answer is it will depend what the jobs are.”
She described her career as “reactive” but says she has always grabbed opportunities. “You have to be open to sideways moves as well as promotions. You have to be prepared to invest in yourself. I don’t think you can expect it to be handed to you.”
She would certainly appear to be a popular choice of candidate, judging by the observations of DH colleagues, one of whom said she was admired for her “incredible breadth of knowledge”. An ex-colleague put it another way: “She’d be a dame if she was in a hospital.”
Viv Bennett CV
● 1976-80: student nurse, John Radcliffe Hospital
● 1980-86: health visitor, Oxfordshire Community Unit
● 1992-96: quality development manager, senior nurse purchasing, public health practitioner,
Oxfordshire Health Authority
● 2002-06: director of nursing and patient services, South Warwickshire Primary Care Trust
● 2008-present: deputy chief nursing officer for England
'You have to invest in yourself. You cannot expect it to be handed to you'