Hyperbole, Harding and health: how cronyism trumps competence

Does it not fill your heart with dread, when a minister in the current government states that a proposed new organisation will become “world-renowned”?

Well, Health Minister Matt Hancock has recently said this about the body he is planning to set up to replace the battered Public Health England (PHE). PHE, itself, was only established as recently as 2013 under a Tory government (and under ministerial control), but it now appears to have been designated as the scapegoat for the failings in the UK’s “world-beating” response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new body is to be called the National Institute for Health Protection and is to be led by none other than the Conservative peer, Dido Harding, who has hardly made a resounding success of the Test and Trace outfit she currently heads.

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Baroness Harding’s background is not in public health. After studying at Oxford, where she was apparently a friend of David Cameron, she took on “senior roles with Tesco and Sainsbury’s”. Then in 2010 she became CEO of Talk Talk, in which position she was twice awarded a wooden spoon by that bastion of left-wing values, the Daily Mail. She is perhaps even better known for having presided over Talk Talk’s huge data leak. She is on the board of the Jockey Club, responsible for running the Cheltenham Festival which, to almost universal dismay, was not cancelled at the start of the pandemic earlier this year. She is married to the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, John Penrose, who is a member of the right wing think tank 1828. This think tank has called for PHE to be scrapped and, incidentally, for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance-based system run by private companies and/or the government.

Harding is Chair of NHS Improvement (a title which brings to mind the horribly believable BBC spoof W1A). On taking up this appointment she was advised by the Health Select Committee, then chaired by Sarah Wollaston, to relinquish the Tory whip in the House of Lords and sit as a crossbencher so that she would be free to challenge the government if necessary. Harding declined to do so.

One might well question the advisability of yet another Health Service re-organisation at a time like this. Energy needs to be concentrated on an incredibly complicated set of issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and not on internal re-organisational matters, the wisdom of a clearly political appointment to what could be a critical role is debatable. The wisdom of the decision is even more in question when the track record of the appointee is so chequered and the recruitment process so opaque.

PHE is a far from perfect body but, according to the respected King’s Fund which investigates Health Service management, public health has been much neglected over the past few years, with a cut in real term funding of 10 per cent in that time. It has been shown quite clearly in recent weeks that locally-based testing and tracking is much more effective than a centrally run system. This is especially true when that central system is outsourced at great public cost to SERCO (whose CEO incidentally is Rupert Soames, a scion of that staunchly conservative dynasty). The excellent old Public Health Service laboratory network of 50 centres, distributed acrosss the country, has been progressively dismantled since 2003, in the interests of ‘economy’ and the notion that big (and central) is beautiful. It isn’t – as Germany, which has retained a much more locality-based system, has demonstrated.

In 2016, a huge pandemic simulation exercise named Cygnus was mounted by NHS England to inform preparations for a situation such as Covid-19 – a situation which most experts considered was inevitable at some time in the coming decade. The results have never been officially published, allegedly because they were too frightening to release to the public, who were presumably deemed unable to cope. Leaked reports suggest that the exercise revealed major problems with PPE, ventilator supply, intensive care bed availability and hospital capacity, all resulting from austerity – none of which has been addressed.

The same report notes that the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, is now under fire, presumably because he takes too independent a line on health service matters. It sounds as though the scapegoat for the next crisis is being fixed in the crosshairs. I wonder which crony is being lined up to replace him.