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5 October 2020

Dido Harding is the problem with NHS Test and Trace – but not for the reason you think

Rather than learning lessons from the first wave of Covid-19, the government’s preference is to blame someone else.

By Stephen Bush

The government’s test and trace system is under fire after it emerged that Public Health England (PHE) failed to pass on more than 15,841 positive cases because its version of Microsoft Excel, the off-the-shelf spreadsheet software it was using, was unable to cope with the volume of new coronavirus cases. That means that those 15,841 cases were not contact-traced, and many more people who needed to be told to self-isolate until they had received a negative test will not have done so.

The government is blaming Public Health England, a body created by the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. PHE may be a Conservative innovation, but the present Tory leadership has convinced itself that it has little to do with them. The government’s critics are blaming Dido Harding, the head of both NHS Test and Trace and the new organisation created by the merger of PHE with Test and Trace, the National Institute for Health Protection.

Who’s right? The honest answer is: no one really knows. However, the government has assumed the answers to the following questions are all “yes”: 1) Were the problems of the first wave primarily to do with operational failings in PHE? 2) Is the National Institute for Health Protection the best vehicle to solve these failings? 3) Can the British state move from Public Health England to the National Institute for Health Protection models during the pandemic without providing a worse standard of coronavirus response during the transition period?

The problem is that if the answer to any of those questions is “no”, you can hire the best possible person to manage that transition and still be worse off than if you had simply not bothered.

Whether the UK’s failings are the consequences of decisions taken by former health secretary Andrew Lansley in 2012, ministerial decisions taken in 2020, a mixture of both, or something else entirely, is unknowable without an inquiry. Even a quick and pared-down independent look into what the British state did well and badly during the first wave of the novel coronavirus would improve the quality of our response – but the government has opted not to do this, and instead has embarked on a reorganisation of its public health body mid-pandemic. It’s far from clear that this would be the right call even if the bodies created by the 2012 act were unfit for purpose. Building the plane as you fly it is so high risk that unless it is absolutely unavoidable, you probably shouldn’t do it.

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So is the problem Public Health England, or is it Dido Harding? In a sense, either way, the problem is what Harding’s appointment represents: a government that believes the only purpose of an independent inquiry would be to cause it political difficulties, rather than something that would improve and sharpen its pandemic response, and whose preferred solution is to blame someone else and to recruit a political crony. 

[see also: The government’s 10pm curfew is unhelpful, unscientific – and misses the point]