On 7 May, when the country was still in its first national lockdown and the crisis over shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) was its height, a Tory peer called Dido Harding was thrust suddenly to the centre of the fight against Covid-19.
Harding was well known in the business community and, partly thanks to her marriage to Conservative MP John Penrose, in top Tory circles too. But her professional reputation had little to do with any great medical knowledge. Since 2017 she had been chair of NHS Improvement, a management post overseeing foundation trusts, but her career heights were as boss at the telecoms firm TalkTalk, and before that she had been in senior roles at the supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Tesco.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, knew Harding, however, and shared an interest in horse racing with her. She was also a good friend of former prime minister David Cameron.
With the Covid crisis raging, there was little time to waste. Because of her management abilities and as she was available and willing to serve, Hancock placed her in charge of England’s new Covid-19 NHS test-and-trace system without putting the unpaid position out to open competition.
If Harding’s appointment in May raised some eyebrows at that time, more concerns were expressed in August when, under fire over the performance of the service, she was also appointed to lead the new health body the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), which was to be formed as result of a merger between Public Health England and NHS test and trace.…