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‘She should be given a well-earned break’: Top Tory MP calls for Test and Trace boss to be axed

Written by on 24/10/2020

A top Tory MP and leading Boris Johnson ally is calling for Dido Harding, the beleaguered boss of NHS Test and Trace, to be axed.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the powerful Liaison Committee of senior MPs, says Conservative peer Baroness Harding “should be given a well-earned break”, adding that “the immediate priority is to fill the vacuum of leadership in Test and Trace”.

His call comes just days after the prime minister and his chief scientific adviser publicly admitted for the first time that the system is not working effectively.

Undated handout file photo issued by UK Parliament of Bernard Jenkin who has received a Knighthood…
Image: Sir Bernard is head of the powerful Liaison Committee

It also coincides with a new opinion poll suggesting the public’s approval of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has hit its lowest-ever level.

The poll suggests that half of voters, 50%, now disapprove of the government’s handling of the pandemic, while fewer than one in three, 29%, approve.

Sir Bernard, controversially installed by Boris Johnson as chairman of the Liaison Committee this year, calls for Baroness Harding’s removal in a hard-hitting article in The Sunday Telegraph.

“Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, apparently says that she is struggling with what she inherited when arriving in the role, but during the summer, initial urgency subsided,” Sir Bernard writes.

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“Perhaps some of those exhausted leaders on the government frontline, like Dido Harding, could be given a well-earned break too; they could use their hard-won experience to help this group reflect on the lessons learned so far.”

Claiming the public has lost confidence in Tests and Trace, Sir Bernard calls for a military commander to be put in charge and also accuses the government of raising false hope about a coronavirus vaccine.

“The challenge for the government is becoming one of public confidence,” he writes. “Much incredible work is being done, but we are still a long way from the ‘world-beating contact tracing system’ promised in June.

“Announcing fresh targets (now 500,000 tests a day by the end of October) does not instil confidence, because people lack faith that there is a coherent plan.

“Instead, ministers should see this as an opportunity to make changes. This change must be visible and decisive.”

Listing several failings of the system, Sir Bernard complains: “There is a spaghetti of command and control at the top, which is incapable of coherent analysis, assessment, planning and delivery.

“The directorates suffer a high level of churn. Data analysis has had three director-generals in five months. Bosses do not ‘own’ their staff: most are temporary appointments and hard to recruit because of a ‘toxic culture’.

“‘People want to get out as quickly as possible’, MPs have been told. This is why the government is forced to rely on thousands of consultants at vast cost.”

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He adds: “The immediate priority is to fill the vacuum of leadership in Test and Trace, which is destroying co-operation and compliance.

“The Liaison Committee has called for military capability to play a greater role. Government harnessed the military to regain control in the foot and mouth crisis; the prime minister should follow that example today, by installing a single leader, a three or four star military commander with a reputation for handling complexity under stress.

“Test and Trace should then be tasked with generating and sustaining a campaign targeted at achieving behaviour change by consent. The result would be a better process of virus containment which commands public confidence and compliance.

“But the government should also stop raising false hope that a single vaccine will be transformative. It may be some time before vaccines can make a major difference. So, what is the strategy?

“The government should establish a high-level, strategic working group, away from the immediate pressures of the crisis. It should produce a first draft of a white paper entitled Living with the Coronavirus.”

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Test and Trace has ‘room for improvement’

Sir Bernard’s attack on Test and Trace followed the PM saying at a Downing Street news conference on Thursday: “I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and we need to improve it.”

At the same news conference, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “It’s very clear there’s room for improvement on all of that and therefore that would be diminishing the effectiveness of this.”

The new opinion poll, carried out by Opinium, suggests Labour now leads the Conservatives by two points, remaining on 40% while the Tories have fallen to 38% during their coronavirus woes.

And after Andy Burnham’s bruising clash with the government, 50% of those living in Greater Manchester approve of the way he is handling his job as mayor and his net approval rating of +25% is significantly higher than Mr Johnson’s nationally at -14%.

 Sky News

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