Why everybody’s talking about new public health boss Dido Harding

The multitalented Tory peer, ex-TalkTalk boss and former jockey is controversial choice to head National Institute for Health Protection

Dido Harding
The multitalented Tory peer, ex-TalkTalk boss and former jockey is controversial choice to head National Institute for Health Protection
(Image credit: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

The appointment of Conservative peer Dido Harding to head the UK’s new public health body will cement her status as one of the most powerful unelected officials in the country.

The former businesswoman and jockey has “forged a career out of crises”, helming TalkTalk when the broadband giant was hit with a major cyberattack, before becoming chair of NHS Improvement three years ago, The Times says.

But her “meteoric rise through the Whitehall ranks” has also raised eyebrows, the BBC reports. So who is Harding and why is her appointment at the new National Institute for Health Protection so controversial?

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Business star

Before entering Whitehall, Harding was a “high-achieving businesswoman”, climbing the corporate ladder at some of Britain’s biggest retailers, including Thomas Cook, Asda and Tesco, the BBC says.

She also worked at global consultancy giant McKinsey, and joined TalkTalk in 2010 during a “period of great upheaval, but emerged with her stock intact”, The Times adds.

However, her tenure at TalkTalk was marred by a massive data breach in 2015 that resulted in the company being fined a record £400,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“Her handling of the crisis was strongly criticised”, says the BBC, “particularly her admission that she did not know whether the information was encrypted or not”. But the attack, in which data on more than 150,000 customers was stolen, was a lone “blot on a hitherto unblemished blue-chip business career”, according to the broadcaster.

Harding was made a peer by David Cameron in 2014 and was appointed as a non-executive director to the Bank of England’s court of directors, before later being promoted to deputy chair.

In 2017, she stood down from TalkTalk and joined the public sector as chair of NHS Improvement, a non-department body focused on driving up standards across the health service.

‘Frying pan into the fire’

A business source “close to the peer” told The Times that “jumping from Talktalk to the NHS was like going from the frying pan into the fire”. But Harding “has always loved the political side from her Talktalk days” and “has taken her role in House of Lords very seriously”, the source said.

Her “dedication to the Tory cause is not in doubt”, The Guardian adds, citing her response to a 2017 suggestion by the Commons Health Select Committee that she sit in the Lords as a crossparty peer in order to “make it easier for her to engage with ministers” as NHS Improvement chair.

Harding declined, saying that she had “no hesitation in challenging government of whatever party”.

Following the coronavirus outbreak, Harding was put in charge of the UK’s track-and-trace rollout, and appeared “polished, confident and on top of her brief” at daily press briefings, says the newspaper.

But her claims about the success of the scheme were cast into doubt by reports that contact tracers were making just a handful of calls each month.

Indeed, the Daily Mail reports that her oversight of the “disastrous” tracing programme has led some experts to “question the decision to appoint Baroness Harding rather than a scientist” to helm the new National Institute for Health Protection - which is replacing Public Health England.

Her personal links are also viewed as problematic. Harding is married to Tory MP John Penrose, a board member on the think tank 1828, “which has published several reports calling for PHE to be abolished”, the paper adds.

So what has the reaction been?

“Dido seems to be failing upwards, given that test and trace has been a disaster,” an NHS official told The Guardian. This assessment is echoed by The Telegraph’s Ross Clark, who describes her “unstoppable upward rise” as “an egregious example of the chumocracy at work”.

“Dido Harding is the modern-day equivalent of Gilbert and Sullivan’s First Lord of the Admiralty – the one who polished the knobs so beautifully that he became leader of the Queen’s Navy,” Clark writes. “She has enjoyed endless promotions and fancy new jobs, but why she has been offered them no-one seems to be quite sure.”

Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, says that her new role “makes about as much sense as Chris Whitty being appointed the Vodafone head of branding and corporate image”.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, has condemned Harding’s appointment as a “reward for failure”. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has “undermined public trust in this new agency before it’s even been launched”, Moran warned.

But not everybody is so scathing about Harding’s suitability for the role, with allies pointing to her business background “as proof that she knows how to get things done”, The Guardian says.

“And although she knew little about health policy beforehand, health leaders have been impressed with how quickly she learned” the ropes at NHS Improvement, the paper adds.

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