Dancing in the wards: NHS chief David Nicholson on the way out

Sir David Nicholson is to resign as chief executive of NHS England early next year, it has emerged, in a move set to prompt ecstatic celebrations from campaigners.

The Health Service Journal reported a March 2014 exit date has been set for the controversial figure, who refused earlier this year to take any level of personal responsibility for the failings at Mid-Staffordshire which occurred on his watch.

"My hope is that by being clear about my intentions now will give the organisation the opportunity to attract candidates of the very highest calibre so they can appoint someone who will be able to see this essential work through to its completion," a letter from Nicholson to NHS England's chair Professor Malcolm Grant stated.

Nicholson was chief executive of the West Midlands Strategic Health Authority at the time of the 1,200 unnecessary deaths in Mid-Staffordshire, prompting repeated calls for him to resign.

His subsequent elevation to the NHS chief executive post saw him oversee the top-down reorganisation of the health service which came into force this spring.

Grant replied in a letter of his own that Nicholson's leadership over the last two years had been "absolutely fundamental" to the success of the coalition's reforms.

Patient groups like Cure The NHS and MPs led by Tory backbencher Charlotte Leslie had repeatedly called for Nicholson's resignation after the Francis inquiry's final report into Mid-Staffordshire in February this year.

But David Cameron repeated Francis' call for there to be no "scapegoats" and defended Nicholson, who was viewed by many in Whitehall as essential to the smooth implementation of the NHS reforms.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt seemed to express that view as he offered praise of his own: "His job has often been incredibly complex and very difficult, and yet he has always had a reputation for staying calm, and maintaining a relentless focus on what makes a difference on the NHS frontline."