It seemed at first that Matt Hancock was scrapping Public Health England in a bid to save his own political career. But the hapless Health Secretary appears to have bungled even this elementary piece of political theatre.
He has appointed Baroness Harding as the head of the new National Institute for Health Protection. Dido Harding?!? The Conservative life peer’s main claims to fame are presiding over the muddled response to a cyber-attack that affected tens of thousands of customers when she was chief executive of TalkTalk and heading up the government’s test-and-trace programme.
To date, the programme has proved almost comically disastrous. The much-heralded app developed by NHSX has now been abandoned – who could have seen that one coming? – and the manual system that’s replaced it is equally hopeless. Harding’s crack army of 25,000 contact tracers managed to track down a grand total of 51,524 people who’ve been exposed to the virus between the end of May and the end of July. That means each employee is averaging one contact per month.
‘One, a trained clinician, said the job was akin to being "paid to watch Netflix". Others spoke of being members of a WhatsApp group called the Mouse Movers Club, which they use to remind each other to move their computer mouse every 15 minutes to avoid being locked out of the system.’
At least, it would be hilarious if Harding hadn’t spent over £10bn of taxpayers’ money on this useless programme.
So how did this organisational genius land the job of heading up the government’s new health agency? It would be some comfort to learn that she beat a strong field of competitors, but in fact the job wasn’t even advertised. Harding was just handed this plum by Hancock. Talk about failing upwards! It probably didn’t hurt that she’s married to the Conservative MP John Penrose.
This would be almost as bad as Gavin Williamson scrapping Ofqual, replacing it with the Institute for Exam Protection and appointing Charles Ingram, aka the cheating Major, to run it.
Note to Hancock: If you’re going to sacrifice a scapegoat, probably a good idea not to replace it with your pet poodle.