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Just when everyone thought things might be looking up, Dido Harding admits interest in top job at NHS England

Yep. The exec responsible for shambolic Test and Trace programme, and TalkTalk's 2015 mega-breach

Baroness Dido "Queen of Carnage" Harding, former TalkTalk CEO and current head of NHS Test and Trace, is reportedly eyeing the top job at NHS England.

According to The Times, the exec has expressed an interest to various leaders in the healthcare sector. If selected, she would replace Sir Simon Stevens, who has served as CEO of the NHS in England since 2014 and leaves in July.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour this morning, Harding acknowledged she was considering applying for the job, but said she had not made a formal application yet.

Harding is a controversial figure with a less-than-illustrious track record in both the public and private sector. During her tenure at TalkTalk, the company was attacked by malicious actors who obtained the details of 156,959 user accounts, with an estimated total financial cost of £60m and 100,000 customers choosing to take their business elsewhere.

The attackers attempted unsuccessfully to blackmail Harding, demanding a sum of Bitcoin in exchange for not publishing the user details, which included bank account numbers and sort codes, as well as partial debit and credit card numbers. Three men were later convicted for their role in the attack.

TalkTalk was then fined £400,000 by the Information Commissioner's Office, which slammed the company for its negligence when it came to "the basic principles of cyber security."

The following year, again under Harding's watch, routers issued by TalkTalk fell victim to the Mirai malware, which co-opts vulnerable embedded systems into a single vast botnet, which can then be used to perform distributed denial-of-service attacks. The incident caused connectivity issues for some users. TalkTalk was heavily criticised for its response, which was to immediately downplay the issue and tell users there was no need to change their default settings.

After leaving TalkTalk, Harding joined the NHS, serving as chair of NHS Improvement, which oversees all providers of NHS care. In 2020, she was tasked with leading the NHS Test and Trace programme, which was widely criticised for its ineffectiveness in tracking the spread of cases, and its effectiveness at shifting public funds into the pockets of highly paid consultants.

A major point of contention was the contact-tracing app. Ignoring the advice of both Apple and Google, the NHS opted to create a system based on a centralised model, which could have presented serious privacy concerns.

In practice, the centralised app was unworkable on a technical level. Without using the APIs provided by Apple and Google, it was forced to create its own framework for performing handshakes between mobile devices. These did not perform with the level of reliability and accuracy needed to effectively stem the flow of cases.

As this failure became more evident, the government gradually relegated its importance from being the thrust of the spear of the UK's contact-tracing effort to, as Harding put it, a "cherry on top." It later created an app using the official Apple and Google APIs, but only after other countries had launched their own.

NHS Test and Trace also performed phone-based contact tracing, as well as swab testing. Much of this legwork was outsourced to the private sector including Serco, G4S, and Deloitte. In March of this year, the Public Accounts Committee criticised the program for its heavy reliance on consultants, with 2,500 used each costing an average of £1,100 per day, and the highest-paid charging £6,624.

Most importantly, the system failed to prevent multiple successive lockdowns, nor regions slipping from less-restrictive tiers into higher ones. To date, there have been 3.4 million cases in England and 112,000 deaths.

Speaking today on Woman's Hour, Harding defended her record. She said NHS Test and Trace played "a huge role in saving lives."

"No, it didn't single-handedly stop lockdowns, and the biggest learning is that it was never going to," she added. "The disease is such that it looks to be impossible to contain it only with testing and tracing."

She also declined to apologise for the perceived failures of the programme, saying she'd only apologise "for the science."

Harding's potential ascendency was poorly received in some quarters. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, commented: "Dido Harding was in charge of the Test and Trace system that cost £37bn – and Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] said it had had 'minimal impact on transmission.' The idea that she should now be rewarded by being made head of the NHS is a dangerous joke."

Labour Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the job should go to someone "with a proven track record of improving services for patients."

Others, including The Guardian have expressed alarm given Harding's closeness to Cambridge Analytica and its founder, Alexander Nix. The former TalkTalk CEO was previously interviewed by Nix about the potential for data analytics in the UK public sector.

The NHS is proceeding with its plan to share anonymised data of GP patients in England with private entities. The deadline to opt out is 23 June. ®

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