Without a trace: Baroness Dido Harding to step down as chair of NHS Improvement

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Baroness Dido "Queen of Carnage" Harding will step down from her role as NHS Improvement chair in October.

The news, first broken by HSJ, comes two months after Harding applied, without success, to be the new NHS England boss – a role taken up by Amanda Pritchard as of 1 August.

The Conservative Party life peer had been chair of NHS Improvement since October 2017 and quit her job as chief of the Test and Trace programme in England and Northern Ireland in April this year.

NHS Improvement – which merged with NHS England in 2019 – looks after foundation and NHS trusts, and among other things is tasked with overhauling models of care and ensuring they are financially sustainable and of high quality. Harding was criticised at the time of her appointment for insisting that she would not give up her private health insurance when she took the role.

But Reg readers possibly know Harding best for her tenure at British budget ISP TalkTalk, which she oversaw during its 2015 mega-breach, where nearly 157,000 users' details were spilled during a cyber-attack, costing the company £42m.

Notable incidents include her claim that TalkTalk was not under a legal obligation to encrypt users' data as she admitted the firm may have not secured its customers' bank details. (The Reg covered what looked very much like a seminar in incident management cockups here.)

The Test and Trace programme Harding looked after from May 2020 until April this year has been mired in controversy. Most criticised has been an ill-thought-through decision (against the advice of critics at The Reg, among others) to link the NHS COVID-19 app to a system based on a centralised model, which would have created serious privacy and data protection issues. Ultimately the NHS ditched its centralised DB plan for the Apple and Google API in June last year – but not before spending millions on the "centralised" DB app and seeing countries around it, including Ireland, get themselves into gear weeks before England and Wales using the Google/Apple API.

Total govt spending on NHS Test and Trace is expected to be £22bn, with £7bn yet to be allocated.

A comparatively small amount, £14m, was spent on the central database approach for the app, which is used in England and Wales. Nonetheless, in February this year, MPs grilled Harding on whether the government had received value for money.

"Because of the work that we did with it, we were able to develop – together with Google and Apple – a much more effective algorithm, and Google and Apple have both recognised that," Harding claimed at the time.

In June, spending watchdog the NAO maintained that an impressive "30 per cent of genomic sequencing results shared internationally come from the UK, making it the largest single contributor" (with many of the samples collected via the T&T programme"), but it had pointed criticism for its management, complaining that, amongst other things, that testing and tracing services were "still being procured under emergency regulations, without competition."

The org revealed the amount awarded under emergency regs had more than doubled to £2.6bn in January-March 2021, compared to £1.1bn in April-June 2020. "NHST&T continues to rely heavily on consultants and has not reduced this as planned, with 45 per cent of staff at its central office being consultants as at mid-April 2021."

The watchdog added that the unit was still struggling to share data with local authorities, who were "struggl[ing] to get timely access to the data they need to deal with localised outbreaks of COVID-19, and they are unclear on the planned operating model after July 2021."

NHS Test & Trace in England is currently moving under the remit of the new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), with the transition expected to be completed in October 2021.

As for the NHS Improvement post, recruitment is reportedly currently under way. Harding remains in the job until October. ®

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