Coronavirus: Senior Conservative MP and Johnson ally calls for Dido Harding to be axed from Test and Trace role

·4-min read

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, told Sky's Sophy Ridge that the management of Test and Trace is bloated and muddled.

He added: "The Test and Trace capability needs to move up several gears... There is a sense that there is a lack of overall strategy that is at the heart of the problem."

But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis dismissed the call, saying: "We want to see it (Test and Trace) improve, we want to see it grow and get better and better. That's how we fight this virus.

"But actually I think Dido and the team have done a very good job to get to where we are."

Sir Bernard wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that 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.

Test and Trace hit a record low with just 59.6% of the contacts of people who tested positive for the disease being successfully contacted and told to self-isolate. The government's own advisers say 80% need to be contacted for the system to be effective.

It 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 50% now disapprove of the government's handling of the pandemic, while just 29% approve.

Sir Bernard wrote: "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."

"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 Test and Trace, Sir Bernard called 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... 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."

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He added: "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."

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%.