LONDON — In three short years, Dido Harding has gone from the woman who failed to stop a massive cyberattack on a telecoms giant, to the interim head of Britains new health protection agency.
It might seem a surprising rise for a businesswoman and influential Tory peer who has spent most of her working life at large corporations including Tesco, Sainsburys and TalkTalk.
Health experts fear that she isnt cut out to lead the countrys replacement to Public Health England given her limited experience of health care, first as chair of health service watchdog NHS Improvement and recently running the U.K.s coronavirus test, track and trace system. In fact, many argue that given her close political contacts, the appointment could look an awful lot like cronyism.
“It is quite unclear what Baroness Harding brings to this role. It is true that she will have learned from the many mistakes in setting up the English test and trace system, but this is not a post in which we should expect the appointee to learn on the job,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
What undoubtedly taints Harding most is the 2015 TalkTalk cyber attack, during her tenure as CEO
Those who have worked closely with Harding are effusive about her, citing her energy, candidness and intelligence.
“Fresh thinking, deeply analytical, but quite politically savvy and a very people-focused approach,” is how one former colleague at NHS Improvement described Harding.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock clearly agrees. “Having somebody with enormous experience both running very large organizations in the private sector … and huge experience of health; she has what it takes to lead this organization,” he said this week. Government officials said her “track record building and growing” major private sector firms makes her ideal to launch the new agency.
What undoubtedly taints Harding most is the 2015 TalkTalk cyber attack, during her tenure as CEO. A hard blow to her reputation, the attack cost the company an estimated £77 million and resulted in a record fine of £400,000.
“I think if she were being candid perhaps and had her time over again she might respond to it differently,” said a former colleague of Hardings at TalkTalk. Despite the challenges at TalkTalk, Harding was “very well thought of” across the organization, the ex-colleague said.
Hard on bullying
While Hardings move in 2017 from TalkTalk to NHS Improvement may have blindsided those working in public health, it wasnt a surprise to those at TalkTalk. “She wanted to turn her guns on something that was perhaps more socially impactful,” explained the former colleague.
Even at NHS Improvement, her appointment was broadly welcomed, with Harding bringing “huge energy and enthusiasm,” said the previous colleague at the watchdog.
There, Harding focused on cultural reforms in the NHS — an organization known for longstanding workforce issues. “Its awful,” said Harding of the levels of bullying in the health service during a 2018 interview with the BMJ. “The percentage of staff saying that they have been a victim of or have witnessed bullying is three, four, fivefold more than you would see in other organizations.”
The issue would become her hobby horse, with Harding taking on the daunting task of the NHS People Plan — a document finally published in July that sets out what needs to change within the workforce.
“The area of workforce in the NHS has been a difficult one for a long time [there have been] a lot of promises,” said an individual who worked with Harding on the plan. “A lot of promises to improve culture, remove bullying and of course, difficulties with workload for staff. So you wouldnt want to start from where Dido and the team had to begin.”
Hardings passion for horse racing is also shared by Hancock | Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images
Despite having every reason to be skeptical, the individual working with Harding on the plan said they were “pretty impressed” with how she managed the mammoth task. “There was no attempt by [Harding] to paper over some of the difficult issues and a real sense of determination to engage.”
Its this candidness that former colleagues seem to be most impressed by.
“She gave a lot of herself and she spoke very candidly and very openly,” said her former colleague at TalkTalk, of her time there.
The same ex-colleague also isnt particularly worried about Hardings latest move to interim head of the new National Institute for Health Protection, despite her lack of experience.
“Shes very good at identifying quality people and getting them close to her [and] using their knowledge. So I would imagine even though shes not an expert in this space, she wont be shy in surrounding herself with people who absolutely are,” said the former colleague.
Even Harding makes no secret of her lack of health care experience. In fact, in a 2018 debate in the House of Lords she admitted that she felt “like a bit of an imposter.”
Hardings affinity for the private sector was first revealed in 2017, when she came under fire for not giving up her private health insurance despite gunning for chair of the board of NHS Improvement.
Public health experts are highly skeptical of a former businesswoman heading up a public health agency, even temporarily. “Looking globally at public health agencies around the world they are almost, without exception, led by people who are either clinically qualified or they are epidemiologists, public health experts,” said Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh.
Hancock and colleagues counter that Public Health Englands setbacks responding to the pandemic — which the NIHP is supposed to resolve — did not stem from a lack of epidemiological expertise, but an institutional failure to scale up its response in time. PHE was regarded as “good at the science” but bad at delivering at scale, said one government official. So — the argument goes — the person at the top needs to be an organizer, not necessarily a scientist.
Privatizing health care
But many public health experts point to problems with the test and trace system as, at least partially, a failing of Hardings. In England, contact tracing has been mostly outsourced, with Public Health England teams working only on cases identified as “complex.”
“Its not the model that those of us working in public health would have recommended,” said Bauld. Data published August 20 indicated that since the test and trace program was launched, 97.7 percent of all complex cases contacts were reached by PHE and asked to self-isolate compared to 58.7 percent of the outsourced, non-complex cases.
“This government approach is to disinvest in public services and instead they channel money to private firms with a view that they can do things more efficiently. But I think today test and trace gives us pretty clear evidence actually that [PHE] can do it more efficiently,” said Bauld.
Hardings affinity for the private sector was first revealed in 2017, when she came under fire for not giving up her private health insurance despite gunning for chair of the board of NHS Improvement. According to the Independent, when being quizzed by MPs before her appointment, she said she didnt believe giving up her private health care would send a “positive message.”
“I think wed be cutting off our hand to spite our face if we demonize private health care,” said Harding at the time.
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