‘Serial failure’: Former head of UK’s disastrous ‘Test and Trace’ programme draws ridicule and anger after seeking top NHS post

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Months after stepping down as head of the UK government’s much-derided Covid-19 contact tracing programme, Dido Harding has once again drawn public ire after news emerged of her pursuit of the top job at NHS England.

The health service’s website confirmed on Thursday that Harding has left her position as chair of NHS Improvement – the body overseeing its hospital trusts – during the recruitment process for the next NHS CEO. She had held that position since October 2017. 

Her time at the helm of ‘Test and Trace’ (T&T) was highlighted by poor performance with a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report noting in March that the programme did not make a “measurable difference” in Covid-19 transmission despite its “unimaginable” £37billion budget.

In its report, the PAC accused Downing Street of treating British taxpayers “like an ATM machine” while over-relying on high-paid consultants, failing to prepare for surging demand for tests and not fulfilling the programme’s justification of avoiding future lockdowns.

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Over the past year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced repeated calls to sack Harding over the failure of what was intended as a “world-beating” system, but which was dubbed by a former Treasury official as the “most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time.”

The wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time. The extraordinary thing is that nobody in the government seems surprised or shocked. No matter: the BoE will just print more money. #soundmoneyhttps://t.co/m0Hc7ch0kd

— Nick Macpherson (@nickmacpherson2) March 10, 2021

Tellingly, a Downing Street spokesman refused to comment or endorse Harding when asked earlier this month about her intention to apply for the top job. Harding also defended her record, claiming the main issue with the service was that “expectations were set too high.”

In her first post-T&T interview with BBC Radio 4, Harding said the UK’s Covid-19 testing programme was “the envy of the world” but cautioned that “testing and tracing and isolating” was only one aspect of the response and not a “silver bullet” to return things to normal.

Harding also apologised “for the science” behind T&T, noting that “the disease is such that it looks to be impossible to be able to contain it only with testing and tracing.”

She had previously blamed the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) for a supposed failure to predict testing demand since the panel’s recommendations had determined the programme’s capacity.

However, social media users were not having it. Several people warned that pairing Harding with Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whose own performance has been under intense scrutiny, was a recipe for disaster. Others wondered if the government had lost its “moral/financial compass.”

And how in heaven’s name could Hancock’s accomplice Dido Harding possibly be considered for the NHS job? https://t.co/ZgHAD47H8W

— James Woodfield (@JamesWoodfield) June 18, 2021

“If Dido is the answer, what is the question?” Labour MP and shadow health minister Justin Madders tweeted in response to the news.

After Hancock revealed this week that the NHS is under the “biggest pressure in its history” with a backlog of some 12.2 million people waiting for delayed elective procedures, several people questioned whether Harding’s candidature was part of the government’s plan to “run it right into the ground.”

If you reward serial failure … you're going to get failure.If Dido Harding gets the job running the NHS it's because whoever gives her the job wants the NHS to fail.Prominent members of the cabinet wrote a book on how to privatise the NHS by this method.Open your eyes. https://t.co/TSm7EuD5gf

— John Spiers (@squeezyjohn) June 17, 2021

In a series of tweets, Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, railed against Harding, even quoting former PM John Major’s warning about the NHS being “about as safe with them [the Johnson government] as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python.”

If Dido Harding is appointed it would make a mockery of any kind of NHSE independence from government. And also mark the death knell of the NHS as we know it. Don’t believe for one second that Johnson, Gove & Hancock don’t have insurance-based health care firmly in their sights.

— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) June 17, 2021

A number of people also pointed to a potential conflict of interest if Harding was appointed to the post. Her husband, conservative MP John Penrose, recently joined the advisory board of an anti-NHS think tank that has called for the health service to be privatised.

It won't the whole purpose is to run the NHS into the ground and sell it off to private health care companies.Dido Harding is an expert in making things fail and her Tory husband is part of a group planning the sell off of the NHS #SayNoToDido#SaveOurNHS

— BobHenderson 💙 #GTTO #FBPE (@BobHend25497803) June 18, 2021

John Penrose is part of an advisory board which calls for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance system John Penrose is Dido Hardings husbandDido Harding has applied to run the NHSJOIN THE DOTS

— sue#NHSLove💙💙💙#FBNHS (@SueSuezep) June 17, 2021

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