Head of UK's Covid-19 test and trace scheme faces grilling by MPs

Head of UK’s Covid-19 test and trace scheme Baroness Dido Harding refuses to reveal how many tests are completed within 24 hours – while contact tracer reveals she STILL hasn’t spoken to anyone and has spent all her time watching Netflix

  • Baroness Harding appeared in front of health committee MPs today
  • She was quizzed about the NHS test and trace system, which launched Thursday 
  • But declined to give any statistics about how well it has performed so far
  • Mr Hunt was irked by Baroness Harding’s refusal to provide data he had asked for
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

The chief of the NHS’s coronavirus test and trace scheme came under fire from MPs today for refusing to give any data about how the system is working. 

Dido Harding, the chair of NHS Improvement, was slammed by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt when she couldn’t say how many Covid-19 tests are being completed within 24 hours.

Speaking to Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee today, Baroness Harding faced demands for data about how well test and trace has worked so far since it launched on Thursday last week.

Mr Hunt, chair of the committee, asked a series of questions about how quickly testing and tracing was being done and the level of compliance from the public.

But Baroness Harding refused to give numbers to the MPs and said none of the data had been ‘validated’.

Mr Hunt said he was ‘disappointed’ because he had given advance notice of the questions she would be asked.

When Baroness Harding could not say the overall proportion of coronavirus swab tests that are completed within 24 hours, Mr Hunt cut in: ‘You must know that; that just can’t be right. 

‘You’re telling me you don’t actually know how many tests come back within 24 hours and you’re in charge of NHS test and trace?’

The controversy comes amid widespread reports that contact tracers are being left without enough work to do, with one reporting she has simply watched Netflix for most of the 38 hours she has worked so far.

Baroness Harding admitted there was ‘spare capacity’ because around a quarter of people are filling out the forms themselves online, and not enough people are getting tested. 

Baroness Dido Harding appeared in front of MPs on the Health and Social Care Select Committee today to answer questions about Britain’s test and trace scheme

Baroness Harding replied: ‘I have not had the data validated.’

She was cut off again by Mr Hunt who said: ‘So you’ve got data but it’s not been validated?’

The test and trace chief said: ‘I have not got the data validated by the authority who has expressed concern over previous testing data not having been validated.’

The former health secretary and MP for South West Surrey asked Baroness Harding to write to the committee within a week confirming the figures. 

Earlier in the meeting Baroness Harding had refused to reveal what proportion of people who tested positive were contacted by tracers within 24 hours, what proportion of them were successfully contacted, what proportion were willing to share details about their close contacts, and what proportion of the contacts were willing to self-isolate when they were asked to do so.

Baroness Harding said a ‘weekly dashboard’ compiling national and local data would be published publicly online, potentially as soon as next week. 

Mr Hunt said in the meeting: ‘I have to say I am quite disappointed with that because we did give you notice of these questions’

Mr Hunt said: ‘I have to say I am quite disappointed with that because we did give you notice of these questions.

‘I would really like to probe and get as much of a flavour as I can because I think, this is a House of Commons select committee, and I think we were told it was going to be a world-beating system when it was launched and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to ask quite simple questions like what proportion of new Covid cases have been contacted within 24 hours.

‘Could you give us a flavour? And are you getting more than 80 per cent of them? Because we’ve been hearing that lots of contact tracers have been sitting idle.’ 

CONTACT TRACER ‘PAID TO WATCH NETFLIX’ 

A contact tracer working in the NHS’s test and trace system has watched nearly three series of a show on Netflix because they haven’t been assigned any work in her first working week.

The worker, known only under the fake name ‘Becky’, told the BBC she had worked 38 hours so far but not engaged with any members of the public.

She told the Victoria Derbyshire programme: ‘It’s frustrating to know that I’m sat idle when there’s people that need contacting…

‘I’m yet to make a single phone call or be assigned a case.

‘I’ve had no contact from anyone. I’ve had no contact from supervisors. I’ve literally been on the system, refreshed the system, and entertained myself during that watching Netflix.

‘I’ve just watched it alongside going back to the system, refreshing it, occasionally having to log back in because it’s timed out. I have yet to have contact with anybody regarding contact tracing.’ 

In her defence Baroness Harding said: ‘I’m very happy to give you a flavour but I just think it’s really important that we give you validated data.

‘I don’t think there’s any citizen service of this scale that would launch and within six days share 24-hour turnaround data. We will get to it really quickly.’

MPs concern about the lack of data comes amid widespread claims that contact tracers – of whom there are around 25,000 employed – don’t have enough work to do. 

One tracer has watched nearly three series of a show on Netflix because they haven’t been assigned any work in her first working week.

The worker, known only under the fake name ‘Becky’, told the BBC she had worked 38 hours so far but not engaged with any members of the public.

She told the Victoria Derbyshire programme: ‘It’s frustrating to know that I’m sat idle when there’s people that need contacting…

‘I’m yet to make a single phone call or be assigned a case.

‘I’ve had no contact from anyone. I’ve had no contact from supervisors. I’ve literally been on the system, refreshed the system, and entertained myself during that watching Netflix.

‘I’ve just watched it alongside going back to the system, refreshing it, occasionally having to log back in because it’s timed out. I have yet to have contact with anybody regarding contact tracing.’ 

And some of the employees can’t do the work they are assigned because of dodgy operating systems, they say.

People working in the system told MailOnline that they had not contacted anyone in the two weeks since they started work.

And employees say they are having to repeat training they have already done because glitches in the system mean they cannot register that they have completed it already. 

Those keen to get started say they have been sat twiddling their thumbs and they have been stuck in queues of over 350 people waiting for technical help.

Sent laughing emojis by bosses who can’t help them, contact tracers say the system remains ‘shambolic’ and unfit for purpose as millions of pupils return to school today. 

People working in the coronavirus test and trace system say they have not been able to do their work because glitches in the operating system have prevented them from getting past the training stage

One source working in the test and trace system said they were ‘frustrated’ to be unable to work and were just told they would be paid anyway

Other lockdown rules have lifted this week, and people are now allowed to meet outdoors in groups of up to six people and outdoor businesses may reopen. 

But there are concerns the test and trace won’t work if Britons refuse to give friends or relatives’ details, and one call handler revealed two of the three potentially infected contacts she rang went straight to voicemail. 

One source, who has been employed by Sitel since May 13 was today still waiting to make their first call while earning £75-a-day for doing nothing.

Experts say the success of the project is crucial to banishing the virus from our lives and a 25,000-strong army of ‘test and trace’ call-handlers have been recruited by companies like Sitel and Serco for the task. 

The source, who is based in the West Midlands, said: ‘Each day we login and it’s the same thing over and over again. We ask what we are going to be doing today only to be told to hold tight and chill out and, “you’re still getting paid”.’ 

Who is Dido Harding? Baroness Harding of Winscombe was raised on a farm in Somerset, is former CEO of TalkTalk, an ex-jockey and married to Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare

The former chief executive of TalkTalk, who was at the helm of the company when it was hit by an £80 million cyber attack in 2015, is leading the UK’s test and trace scheme to tackle the coronavirus. 

Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe, 53, was raised on a Somerset pig farm and is the granddaughter of Field Marshall Lord Harding, the commander of the Desert Rats who became the most senior soldier in the British army. 

A former jockey, she studied Policy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, alongside David Cameron, and is the wife of John Penrose, the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.

Upon graduating, she held a slew of roles at Thomas Cook, Woolworths, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. 

Baroness Harding was appointed CEO of TalkTalk in 2010, serving in the role for seven years, during which the company was the victim of a cyber attack that saw the personal and banking details of 157,000 customers accessed by hackers. 

She was subjected to repeated blackmail attempts after the hack, with demands for Bitcoins in exchange for stolen data, which included customers’ names, email addresses, mobile numbers, home addresses and dates of birth. 

Former TalkTalk CEO Baroness Dido Harding will lead the UK’s test and trace scheme to tackle the coronavirus, set to launch tomorrow

Baroness Harding is a former jockey, though she quit racing after hitting 40 and promising her husband she’d stop

In the aftermath, TalkTalk was fined a record £400,000 for security failings which allowed the data to be accessed ‘with ease’ in one of the biggest data breaches in history. 

TalkTalk is thought to have lost £60million from the fallout with an estimated 100,000 angry customers leaving, mainly to BT, while 2015 profits halved to £14million and shares lost nearly two-thirds of their value.

Baroness Harding faced repeated calls to step down over the breach, but stayed on until 2017, when she resigned to focus on her ‘public service activities’. 

Later that year, she was appointed chair of NHS Improvement, responsible for overseeing all NHS hospitals. 

A powerful figure,  she refuses to believe her gender has ever held her back, nor will she endorse female quotas on company boards, which she sees as political meddling. 

She also thinks that workers have too much maternity leave, despite admitting being the boss has allowed her to successfully juggle her own career with spending time with the two daughters she has with her husband. 

She studied Policy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, alongside David Cameron, and is married to John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare

She said in a 2015 interview: ‘I have an enormously privileged position.

‘I make a lot of money – a matter of public record – I have a huge amount of help, and I’m more in control of the day and what I do than someone working shifts on the checkout, or running the produce department in a supermarket.’

Baroness Harding has also packed in a career as a jockey, which saw her appear at Cheltenham, Ascot and even the towering Grand National jumps at Aintree.

One particularly nasty crash over the sticks at Larkhill left her strapped to a spinal board – though she still managed to catch a flight to a conference in Thailand the next day.

As TalkTalk CEO, she was presented with the Daily Mail wooden spoon award for ‘Worst Customer Service’

But, aged 24, she made a rash promise to her husband – she would give it all up at 40.

When the date came Penrose, who had not forgotten, made it clear breaching the bargain was a deal-breaker for the marriage.

Harding obliged, though does still race without jumps.

‘I miss the racing hugely,’ she previously admitted. ‘If you told me I could go off and do it tomorrow afternoon I would. For me that’s always been my way of shutting everything off and relaxing.’

Now, she is the leader of the government’s coronavirus tracing programme.

The NHS Test and Trace system for England will see anyone who develops symptoms told to self-isolate and get tested, with the close contacts of those who are found to be positive for the disease then told to quarantine for 14 days even if they test negative and are not sick.

The system is being launched without its NHS contact tracing app centrepiece prompting concerns that without the new technology the Government could struggle to tackle the spread of the disease.  

Experts immediately said the complexity of the programme meant there could be ‘several points of failure’ while the Government’s political opponents said ministers should never have largely ditched contact tracing in the first place. 

Mr Hancock said that adhering to self-isolation would be ‘voluntary at first’ but that he could ‘quickly make it mandatory if that is what it takes’.

He told the daily Downing Street press conference: ‘If you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace instructing you to isolate, you must. It is your civic duty, so you avoid unknowingly spreading the virus and you help to break the chain of transmission.’    

The launch of the programme was announced by Boris Johnson during an appearance in front of the Liaison Committee this afternoon as he admitted the UK’s testing capability was underpowered at the start of the outbreak because the ‘brutal reality’ was Britain did not ‘learn the lessons’ of previous pandemics.   

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