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Sat, 24 October 2020

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Coronavirus Test and Trace boss Dido Harding to head up new pandemic response body as Public Health England faces the chop

Coronavirus Test and Trace boss Dido Harding to head up new pandemic response body as Public Health England faces the chop

Baroness Harding (left) will lead the new organisation on an interim basis. (PA)

4 min read

The Government’s coronavirus test and trace chief Dido Harding has been chosen to run a new institute which will replace Public Health England when the controversial agency is abolished.

Baroness Harding, a Conservative peer and former TalkTalk chief executive, will be named as interim head of the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), which is set to take on chunks of PHE’s remit before the organisation is scrapped.

But opposition parties said the Government’s “sub-optimal” record on getting the key coronavirus tracking programme up and running raised questions about the appointment, while public health experts queried the timing of the Whitehall shake-up.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will on Tuesday make a major speech about public health, in which he is expected to signal the end of PHE and hand over responsibility for preventing outbreaks to the newly-created NIHP.

PHE, which has come under intense scrutiny for its decision to shift away from mass coronavirus testing in March because of a lack of resources, is expected to continue its work combating obesity and preventing other illnesses for the time being.

'TOTAL TRANSPARENCY'

But Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “Given Dido Harding’s track record overseeing the set-up of England’s sub-par test-and-trace system, many people will be worried to hear that she may be given a pivotal new role in the NHS.

“We need to have total transparency in how appointments of this kind are made, to ensure we get the best people for the job.

“Rather than focus on promoting yet another Tory insider, the government would do well to reflect on their handling of this pandemic and launch an independent inquiry to ensure we don’t repeat past mistakes.”

Labour's shadow health minister Justin Madders said there had been "no transparency or accountability" in Baroness Harding's appointment.

The fresh Whitehall overhaul comes after Boris Johnson used a major speech in June to take aim at “parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly” to the coronavirus pandemic, in remarks that were widely interpreted as being about PHE.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said on Monday: “We’ve always said we must learn the right lessons from the crisis and act to ensure government structures are fit to cope. 

“PHE have played an integral role in our response to this unprecedented pandemic, working on important issues such as protection, surveillance, contact tracing and testing.”

Asked whether it was wise to reorganise a major public health body in the middle of a pandemic, the Downing Street spokesperson added: “It’s important we learn the right lessons from the crisis to act to ensure the government structures are fit to cope in the future.”

'MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS'

But Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health said the planned changes left health officials “with more questions than answers”.

“We question the timing of an announcement to scrap our national public health agency in the midst of a global pandemic and before any public inquiry any has started, let alone reported,” she said.

“We recognise that there have been some serious challenges in terms of our response to Covid-19, including the timing of the lockdown, the ongoing ineffectiveness of Tier 2 Track and Trace and postcode-level data previously not being available to DPHs. 

“Multiple lessons need to be learnt before solutions can be in place in advance of the winter. To do otherwise risks avoidable mistakes in subsequent waves of the pandemic which will only harm the public’s health further.”

Ms Marriott argued that successive governments had “sidelined” public health, with public health budgets “slashed” under the coalition government.

“It may be appropriate for the functions to sit in different agencies – but clear accountability for outcomes in health improvement, health inequalities and health protection must be established,” she said.

“With that accountability must come sufficient funding. The 25% real term cut in its funding since 2015 must be reversed. Public health needs a medium term settlement: the annual uncertainty of budgets must be removed.”

Speaking at the weekend, Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of PHE, said criticism of the body was "based on a misunderstanding".

And the health boss added: "The UK had no national diagnostic testing capabilities other than in the NHS at the outset of the pandemic. PHE does not do mass diagnostic testing.

"We operate national reference and research laboratories focussed on novel and dangerous pathogens, and it was never at any stage our role to set the national testing strategy for the coronavirus pandemic. This responsibility rested with DHSC."

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