Dido Harding's appointment to English public health body ruled unlawful

Hiring of ex-Sainsbury's CEO at NHS Test and Trace also against equality law – court


The appointment of Dido Harding as interim chair of the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) has been ruled unlawful by the High Court of England and Wales.

The infamous Queen of Carnage – a moniker she earned after presiding over TalkTalk during its catastrophic 2015 cyber-attack which cost around £42m and saw 157,000 users' financial details divulged – was appointed head of the public body in 2020. NIHP was the replacement for the disbanded Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, during the height of COVID-19 pandemic.

In a ruling handed down today [PDF], the High Court of England and Wales said the September 2020 appointment of Mike Coupe, former CEO of UK supermarket Sainsbury's, as director of testing at NHS Test and Trace (NHSTT), was also unlawful.

Race and equality think tank the Runnymede Trust won its case against the appointments in a ruling which concluded former health secretary Matt Hancock "did not comply with the public sector equality duty" in relation to their appointments.

The original claim alleged four appointments connected with the government's pandemic response represented as evidence that the successful candidate had some relevant personal or political connection to the secretary of state. These were the decision to appoint Baroness Harding as chair of the NHS Test and Trace, the decision to appoint Kate Bingham to lead the Vaccines Task Force, the decision to appoint Baroness Harding to be the interim chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, and, lastly, the decision in September 2020 to appoint Mike Coupe to be director of testing at NHS Test and Trace.

While Baroness Harding's husband is a Conservative MP, and she was on the board of J Sainsbury plc when Coupe was CEO, the judges did not conclude that each appointment was "because of a policy or practices that made appointments without open competition, that only persons known to decision-makers or politicians could be appointed, or that no remuneration would be offered made in pursuance of anything capable of being described as a policy."

However, the claim succeeded in arguing there had been a breach of public sector equality duty, that is, "the obligation, in the exercise of public functions, to have due regard amongst other matters to the need to eliminate discrimination and to advance equality of opportunities."

The court found "there is no evidence from anyone saying exactly what was done to comply with the public sector equality duty when decisions were taken on how each appointment was to be made."

The ruling applies to Coupe as director of Testing for NHS Test and Trace and Harding as interim chair of NIHP. The complaint about the May 2020 decision to appoint Baroness Harding to NHSTT was commenced out of time, the court found.

Harding's leadership of Test and Trace has not been without controversy. In October last year, her role in the vital plank of the UK's COVID-19 pandemic response was given a damning verdict by a committee of MPs. The £37bn centrally managed organisation was set up to stem the tide of 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.

She was criticised for presenting out-of-date information to the committees in relation to her claim that the organisation had helped reduce the R-number – the figure indicating the rate of reproduction of the deadly virus. ®

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