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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Covid-19 contact tracing to be taken over by new public health body

Boris Johnson’s government has announced it is scrapping Public Health England and replacing it with an entirely new body: the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP).

The NIHP is set to engulf Public Health England (PHE), the NHS Test and Trace initiative, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) – a body set up earlier this year to monitor the spread of coronavirus in real time that is headed up by Clare Gardiner, director of cyber resilience and strategy at the National Cyber Security Centre (a branch of GCHQ).

According to a statement, the new body will “focus on a rigorous science-led approach to public health protection”, specifically primed to respond to viruses and other “external threats”.

Read next: How will the NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app work and when will it go live?

Baroness Dido Harding, who currently heads up NHS Test and Trace in England, will take up a role as the interim chief of the new public health body. The appointment has sparked scorn over Harding’s lack of public health credentials and the Test and Trace programme’s poor track record.

The Test and Trace programme had to abandon the first iteration of the coronavirus contact tracing app after it became clear that the centralised architecture wouldn’t work sufficiently well on iPhones. The app is now being built with Google and Apple’s framework instead. Some £12 million was spent on the abandoned version.

Harding has also overseen a poorly managed Covid-19 tracing programme. Contracts worth hundreds of millions have been awarded to outsourcing companies Serco and Sitel, but the former has been found to contact less than half of the people who test positive for coronavirus – prompting calls to halt any further public funding to the outsourcer, which appear to have been ignored. Serco was fined £1 million for failures on another government contract just a few months before being handed the first contact-tracing deal.

Harding is the former CEO of TalkTalk, and oversaw a massive data breach during her time there in 2015.

“The lack of public scrutiny or transparent recruitment process for such a crucial appointment is appalling,” tweeted Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West & Abingdon. “This decision should have been debated and scrutinised in Parliament, instead it was announced at a right-wing think tank without a single question allowed from the media.”

Critics are crying cronyism given that Harding is a Tory peer and her husband is a Tory MP, as well as a member of the anti-NHS group 1828, which calls for an insurance-based health system and, incidentally, the scrapping of Public Health England.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has indicated that there will be more public-private “partnership” in future – stoking fears over the piecemeal privatisation of the NHS.

Harding said in a statement: “Combining the UK’s world-class public health talent and infrastructure with the new at-scale response capability of NHS Test and Trace into a single organisation puts us in the strongest position to stop the spread of the virus.

“The changes announced today are designed to strengthen our response, and to radically ramp up our fight against this disease, whilst also protecting PHE’s essential work beyond COVID that is so important for the nation’s health.”

NIHP is due to be formalised and operational from spring 2021.