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Baroness Dido Harding, who runs NHS Test and Trace, is set to take on another key role in the UK’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic as Public Health England is broken up.
Health secretary Matt Hancock will reportedly announce on Tuesday that the Conservative peer will head the Government’s new Institute for Health Protection, which will replace Public Health England (PHE).
Ministers have been accused of attempting to deflect attention from their own handling of the Covid-19 crisis by targeting PHE.
Harding, the former chief executive of TalkTalk, was appointed in May to lead England’s contact tracing programme, which relies on identifying people who have been in contact with a positive coronavirus case and getting them to self-isolate.
Since then, the programme has faced questions about performance and value for money.
An NHS app was said to be key to the scheme but has been beset by delays, with the launch of a new public trial announced just days ago.
It comes after repeated reports of government frustration with PHE, with Boris Johnson apparently taking aim at the body when he complained of the country’s “sluggish” response to coronavirus.
PHE’s pandemic response work will now be merged with NHS Test and Trace in a new institute for health protection.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, the model for the new institute is the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, which rapidly ramped up testing early in the pandemic and is widely seen as Europe’s major success story in responding to Covid-19.
PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie has hit out at suggestions his body was to blame for England’s lack of testing early in the pandemic, telling the newspaper it was “based on a misunderstanding”.
He said: “The UK had no national diagnostic testing capabilities other than in the NHS at the outset of the pandemic. PHE does not do mass diagnostic testing.
“We operate national reference and research laboratories focused on novel and dangerous pathogens, and it was never at any stage our role to set the national testing strategy for the coronavirus pandemic. This responsibility rested with DHSC (the Department of Health and Social Care).”
Senior health figures have also accused ministers of wrongly attempting to “blame” PHE.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, representing NHS trusts, has said “years of underfunding” for PHE and public health more generally left the country unprepared to deal with a pandemic.
He said unlike other health bodies such as NHS England, PHE – which replaced the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in 2013 under the Conservatives’ NHS reorganisation – is an executive agency of DHSC.
“This gives ministers direct control of its activities,” he said.
“So whilst it might be convenient to seek to blame PHE’s leadership team, it is important that the government reflect on its responsibilities as well.”
His comments were echoed by Dr Amitava Banerjee, associate professor at the Institute of Health Informatics, University College London, who said: “If PHE has fallen short, responsibility lies firmly with the current government and health ministers.”