Brit MPs blast Baroness Dido Harding's performance as head of NHS Test and Trace

Programme lacked transparency at critical stage in pandemic, report says


Baroness Dido Harding's tenure as head of NHS Test and Trace – a vital plank of the UK's COVID-19 pandemic response – has been given a damning verdict by a committee of MPs.

The former CEO of TalkTalk – dubbed by El Reg as Queen of Carnage for her role in the company's 2015 mega-breach – was responsible for NHS Test and Trace, the £37bn centrally managed organisation set up to stem the tide of the coronavirus and avoid a second national lockdown.

As well as criticising the overall performance of Test and Trace – the UK had two subsequent lockdowns – the House of Commons Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees zeroed in on Harding's lack of transparency in sharing performance data.

"Partly because it was set up too late, NHS Test and Trace ultimately fell short of the expectations set for it. It has failed to make a significant enough impact on the course of the pandemic to justify the level of public investment it received. It clearly failed on its own terms," said the report published today.

The committees focused on the claim that Test and Trace was succeeding in its aim to reduce the R (reproduction) number quantifying the spread of the disease.

The December 2020 Test and Trace Business Plan said that in October 2020 NHS Test and Trace had "reduced the R number by around 0.3–0.6" based on an "externally reviewed model," which was not published at the time.

That model had not been made public when Harding used it as evidence of NHS Test and Trace's "material impact" on R before the Public Accounts Committee on 18 January 2021 [PDF].

The analysis remained unpublished when the Science and Technology Committee spoke to Harding on 3 February 2021, when she explained that the technical description of the model was undergoing quality assurance.

"While it took two months for the technical annex to be published, the analysis was effectively outdated by the time it was released. We note therefore that when Baroness Harding told the Science and Technology Committee in February 2021 that the test and trace service was 'on track to reduce R in high-prevalence areas by between 0.6 and 0.8 by the end of March', her statement was based on out-of-date information," the report said.

"When it was published it became clear that the analysis was outdated, invalidating claims made at the time. The use of inaccurate data and the lack of transparency impeded effective public scrutiny at a crucial time in the pandemic," the MPs said.

Baroness Harding went on to become interim chief of the newly established National Institute for Health Protection, the agency being created by the government to replace Public Health England.

The Conservative peer stepped down from her role leading Test and Trace in April 2021.

During the committee hearings, it was revealed that as of November 2020, the programme had hired more than 2,300 consultants and contractors working for 73 different suppliers at a total cost of approximately £375m.

The MPs' report also documents problems in sharing data in the early stages of the pandemic.

Jeanelle de Gruchy, then president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said that because the testing system was set up outside the NHS, there was no way for test results to easily flow into the public health system.

"Because different systems were being set up in silos without the public health or emergency response systems that we had, there were technical issues of different data systems that were not speaking to each other. That was certainly a problem," she said. ®

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