The government has today (August 18) officially announced plans to axe Public Health England (PHE) and replace the body with a new agency, after the plans were leaked to the media at the weekend.
PHE is now to be merged with NHS Test and Trace into a new organisation called the National Institute for Health Protection, and will be tasked with preventing future outbreaks of infectious diseases like coronavirus.
The timing and abruptness of the change – the merger is expected to be ‘effective’ by September — has drawn criticism from all corners, with Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth noting that such a massive structural reorganisation in the middle of a pandemic is “time consuming” and “energy-sapping”.
“It’s risky, indeed irresponsible,” he added, in a series of scathing tweets.
Critics have also questioned how and where the remainder of PHE’s duties aside from infectious disease control will be reassigned – after all, the body oversees a host of other public health functions from addiction treatment, to sexual health, tackling obesity, managing disease registries, research, and much more.
Responding to leaked reports of the news, Unite on Monday (August 18) raised the prospect of a hidden privatisation agenda – one that’s perhaps not-so-hidden after it was announced that Dido Harding, a businesswoman and Tory peer whose personal and professional connections have raised eyebrows, will be installed as interim chief of the new National Institute for Health Protection.
Catalogue of failures
Critics have highlighted how Baroness Dido Harding has overseen a catalogue of failures both in the private and public sectors.
Most recently, she now leads the outsourced NHS Test and Trace programme in England, which has been plagued by scandal since its inception in May.
A major concern has been how two outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel were awarded contracts to run the contact tracing service without public competition in late May. It was revealed earlier this month that in recent weeks, the service run by the firms has managed to reach only just over half of the close contacts of those testing positive for coronavirus.
Baroness Harding has served in executives roles in various companies, most infamously as mobile phone provider TalkTalk’s chief executive. She presided over the company when two teenagers cyber attacked the firm in 2015, which resulted in the theft of 157,000 customers’ personal details. About 16,000 people’s bank accounts and sort codes were hacked, as were a further 28,000 customers’ credit and debit card numbers.
Harding was slammed for being ‘naïve’ and ‘ignorant’ at the time of the scandal, when she was forced to admit that she didn’t know whether all customers’ data was encrypted. She refused to give customers any discounts on termination fees if they wished to leave TalkTalk right after the cyber-attack.
Despite the cyber-attack costing £60m and resulting in the departure of nearly 100,000 customers, Baroness Harding kept her position as CEO of TalkTalk for a year and a half after the cyber-attack. The year she left, she still claimed her £550,000 annual salary despite only working two months out of the year.
Just six months after resigning from TalkTalk, having no experience in public health, Baroness Harding was appointed head of NHS Improvement in 2017 before being appointed leader of NHS Track and Trace this year.
During her tenure as boss of NHS Improvement, she was asked by Parliament’s health select committee to resign as a Tory peer and sit as a cross-bench peer instead to “allow for greater parliamentary and public confidence in her ability to challenge government ministers and policies if this role demands it”. She refused.
‘Jobs for the boys and girls’
More than just lack of public health experience, she has actually been involved in a separate public health scandal. Sitting on the board of the Jockey Club, which owns Cheltenham Racecourse, she will have had influence on the decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead in mid-March just days before the government announced the UK-wide lockdown. It is thought that the horseracing festival, which drew 260,000 people over four days and has been criticised as a ‘super-spreader event’, helped accelerate the spread of coronavirus in the UK.
Perhaps most alarmingly of all, Baroness Harding has a personal connection to think tank 1828, which has called for the NHS to be replaced with an insurance system and for Public Health England to be scrapped – her husband, Tory MP John Penrose, sits on the think tank’s advisory board.
Critics have also pointed out another connection between Harding and health secretary Matt Hancock, who appointed Harding to her current position as leader of the new agency replacing the PHE. Matt Hancock’s constituency is Newmarket, the seat of the Jockey Club, and he has benefited from hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from prominent Tory figures in the horseracing world.
Unite national officer for health Jackie Williams condemned Baroness Harding’s appointment as interim head of the new National Institute for Health Protection.
“You really couldn’t make this stuff up – a businesswoman and Tory peer with no public health experience, who has connections with Tory NHS privateers, is installed as leader of Public Health England’s successor,” she said.
“Not only has Baroness Dido Harding presided over failures with NHS Track and Trace but also as chief executive of TalkTalk, where she showed stunning contempt for her customers, innocent victims of a data theft, who made her company millions,” Williams added.
“If anyone had even a smidgeon of confidence left in this government to seriously tackle this pandemic instead of indulging in a nakedly corrupt display of ‘jobs for the boys and girls’, all that confidence was lost today with Baroness Harding’s appointment,” she went on to say.
“Health secretary Matt Hancock in his speech today praised our members in Public Health England (PHE) for their ‘exceptional’ and ‘life-saving’ work during the pandemic, but then he pulls the rug from underneath them by announcing a massive, disrputive re-organisation of public health without any consultation. The health secretary needs to stop putting politics before public health.”
Stay tuned tomorrow on UniteLIVE when we hear from our members in Public Health England (PHE).
By Hajera Blagg