ANDREW PIERCE: The testing fiasco is threatening to shut down hundreds of schools… so where on earth has Dido Harding been?

Dido Harding walks to 10 Downing Street, September 16

As the testing fiasco threatens to shut down hundreds of schools, it’s the deafening question: what is the test-and-trace tsar Baroness Harding doing about the crisis?

There has been barely a trace of her. The former businesswoman, who was appointed in a blaze of publicity in May, has apparently largely gone AWOL.

She was spotted going into Downing Street yesterday, but she has not been seen in television studios nor gracing our airwaves to explain what has gone wrong. Instead, she has left the Health Secretary Matt Hancock to face the flak.

Humiliatingly, six months into the pandemic, Hancock yesterday had to admit that Covid tests will have to be rationed to the general public, to ensure frontline workers can get a test along with care home residents.

This is despite Boris Johnson in June pledging a ‘world-beating’ service with all test results turned round within 24 hours. The crisis in testing dominated Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. Yet Harding kept her head below the parapet eschewing interview requests.

On Twitter she has said nothing about testing since July.

‘She’s a cross between the Scarlet Pimpernel and Macavity the cat who was never around when there was trouble,’ said one exasperated Whitehall source. ‘The test and trace system is imploding yet there is silence from the Baroness.’

Despite increasing numbers of Tory MPs now criticising the testing system, Harding has so far ducked the chance to defend it in the House of Lords to which she was elevated in 2014. In fact, she hasn’t spoken in the Upper House since March 24 when she talked about Covid for four minutes and emphasised the importance of ‘expanding testing capacity’.

The omens for her tenure as test and trace tsar were hardly auspicious. One of her first acts in July was to get rid of a chart showing the UK’s progress on crucial coronavirus testing from daily Downing Street briefings. At around the same time, the much vaunted NHS test and trace app was delayed because the technology was not up to scratch.

Humiliatingly, six months into the pandemic, Hancock yesterday had to admit that Covid tests will have to be rationed to the general public, to ensure frontline workers can get a test along with care home residents

That same month Harding, who has no scientific background, made a disastrous appearance before the Commons’ health committee when she refused to say what proportion of tests were completed within the 24-hour time period the Prime Minister had pledged. Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is the committee’s chairman, could not conceal his irritation at her refusal to answer questions. ‘You’re telling me that you actually don’t know how many tests come back within 24 hours and you are in charge of NHS test and trace,’ he said.

Ever since the bruising encounter, Harding seems to have retreated from public view. This does not mean, however, she is any less influential in Government circles.

In August, when the Government announced it was axing Public Health England, it emerged Baroness Harding – an Oxford contemporary of David Cameron – would lead the body that replaces it, the National Institute for Health Protection. Intriguingly, she is married to Tory MP John Penrose who is on the board of think-tank ‘1828’ which has called for Public Health England to be abolished.

‘Dido Harding has locked herself away in the old Public Health England building setting up the new National Institute,’ claims the Whitehall source. ‘The real priority should be getting on the front foot of test and trace but we can’t prise her out of her hideaway.’

Baroness Dido Harding pictured at a Downing Street press conference in July 

While Harding was chief executive of TalkTalk in 2015 the company suffered one of the biggest data breaches in commercial history when 4million customers’ private details were hacked. That year she was paid £2.8million, an increase of £1million on the previous year. Despite calls for her to step down, she remained at the helm until 2017.

She then joined NHS Improvement, a body that oversees NHS trusts, for which she was paid £62,000 for a three day week. When the Commons’ committee on health examined her appointment, it remarked on her ‘complete lack of experience’ of health issues.

Harding, a former jockey, is also on the board of the Jockey Club – which famously put on the Cheltenham Festival, attracting crowds of 250,000 people just as lockdowns were taking effect all over the world.

The granddaughter of Field Marshal Lord Harding, who became the most senior soldier in the British army, she grew up on a Somerset pig farm and went to catholic private school St Antony’s Leweston. In a 2015 interview, she admitted: ‘I have an enormously privileged position. I make a lot of money – a matter of public record – I have a huge amount of help, and I’m more in control of the day and what I do than someone working shifts on the checkout.’

Since she is up before a select committee today, perhaps she’ll explain why she has lost control of the test and trace system.

Source: Read Full Article