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Sally Davies is a model chief medical officer

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I happened to be listening to Private Passions − Radio 3’s upmarket version of Desert Island Discs − at the weekend, when I heard the invited guest admit to eating hash cookies at university, until she stopped, having been put off by the hallucinations.

Health reporting HSJ and LGC logo

Listening with only half an ear, I didn’t realise the culprit was Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, until I read the next day’s Daily Mail.

‘Davies is from a student generation that dabbled in drugs. It’s the socially conservative tabloids that are out of step’

“‘I’ve taken cannabis,’ says CMO: shock admission from UK’s top doctor”, screamed the headline. Dame Sal is a woman who prizes her privacy. “Taking the family to work” doesn’t help them or the job, she told Radio 3 types. Oh dear.

She may regret her characteristic candour in the privacy of Radio 3, but she shouldn’t.

A baby boomer born in 1949, Davies is from a student generation that dabbled in drugs, even if Bill Clinton (b.1946) didn’t inhale. It’s the socially conservative tabloids that are out of step, pandering to readers’ fears.

Instinctively outspoken

Three times married, clever and practical, she is instinctively outspoken despite (or is it because of?) being shy.

She was supposed to give public health a higher profile, the residual legacy of the doomed Lansley plan for a refocused Department of Public Health. I sometimes hear her on the radio and TV talking sense − not just about Mozart or Wagner. Thus she said men have a “bullshit” Y chromosome and most people have “lost our ability to talk about death”.

But some MPs privately tell me she’s not been conspicuous enough. Is that fair?

It can’t have been easy to follow the long tenure of Sir Liam Donaldson, who was CMO from 1998 to 2010 − a man steeped in Whitehall battles, from infectious disease control and the reorganisation of medical education to patient empowerment and minimum unit pricing for alcohol (ministers still dither over his report). Incidentally, Sir Liam is just six months older than Dame Sally.

Antibiotics agenda

An official I know tells me she is definitely a good thing and has established herself with a distinct agenda on antibiotics.

Medicine in this country could soon slip back 200 years unless the “catastrophic threat” of increasingly ineffectual drugs is not addressed with new ones (there have been no major new drugs since the 1980s), she warned in her first annual report in March, following a period as acting CMO.

‘Not enough has been made of Davies’ glass ceiling busting as England’s first woman CMO’

It is a “ticking timebomb” as serious as climate change or terrorism; doctors must prescribe them less and science must find more, the former biotech researcher said.

Hardly news, but still not appreciated by penicillin junkies.

Public health nowadays is more a micro-issue in the shape of personal lifestyle choices than a macro one of drains and disease, though an antibiotic crisis could change that. So there’s lots to say and someone must sort the wheat from the chaff. For example, should pregnant women drink wine, coffee and tea − or not?

Middle class women’s excess drinking is a better tabloid target than cannabis. Dame Sally, a wine as well as a music enthusiast, had cut down on the booze, especially in public, because women’s livers can’t hack it like men. “I’ve read the evidence,” she explained.

Breaking the ceiling

Meanwhile, not enough has been made of her glass ceiling busting as England’s first woman CMO.

This is at a time when the NHS frets about gender bias and GP spokeswoman Dr Clare Gerada duffs up UKIP banker Stuart Wheeler − as she did last week − for suggesting her sex is inferior in many ways.

Davies was recently voted Woman’s Hour’s sixth most powerful woman in the UK, after the Queen, Theresa May, head of Santander bank Ana Botín, top judge Brenda Hale and Elisabeth Murdoch.

Strike out the two hereditaries and she’s in fourth.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

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