Typhoid Dido proves fluent in management bollocks and contradiction | John Crace


Towards the end of his interview on the Today programme, Matt Hancock was asked if Kate Bingham, the head of the UK vaccines taskforce, was right to hand out £670,000 in PR contracts to some of her old muckers. Of course, the health secretary insisted, because she had done a great job in procuring possible vaccines. Then Matt doubled down. “I would go out of my way to thank Kate Bingham,” he said. The £670,000 in unnecessary media advisers was just a sideshow. A political distraction.

“She has given up six months of her life to help the government,” he concluded with a flourish. It would be nice if everyone received such gratitude from a government minister just for doing their job. But I guess you win some and you lose some. And to be fair, not many people have gone out of their way to praise Hancock for the job he has done. There again he hasn’t always done it that well.

Which brings us nicely on to Dido Harding, the chief exec of the misnamed NHS test and trace, given that most contracts have been outsourced to private companies. Fair to say that test and trace has failed on even the mediocre metrics it has set itself under Harding’s leadership. And yet she is somehow untouchable.

If anyone else had presided over this mess they would have been on a last warning at the very least, but Typhoid Dido continues on serenely. It probably helps that, like Bingham, she is married to a Tory MP – there must be a lot of Conservative partners upset to have missed out on this avenue for preferment – but what most counts in her favour is that she at least is doing it for nothing. Call it charity work. And it’s hard to moan too much if someone is useless when they are paid nothing to be useless.

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Nevertheless, Typhoid Dido still finds herself accountable for what is one of the most important strategies for controlling the spread of coronavirus and she today found herself giving evidence to the health and science select committees on progress so far. Or rather the lack of it. To her credit, Harding is at least a trier. She has the appearance of someone prepared to put the hours in, even if they aren’t always put to much obvious use.

The session started with some quibbles over numbers. How much of the test and trace was done nationally and how much locally, asked Greg Clark. “We have a team of teams,” replied Harding, “and are locally led but nationally supported”. If nothing else Typhoid Dido is fluent in management bollocks. Clark tried to press her on the exact figures. “I’m afraid I don’t have the exact numbers to hand,” she shrugged. This was to become a constant refrain throughout the two hours she was before the committee.

Jeremy Hunt was next to press Harding on the details. By his estimates, test and trace ought to be making contact with 177,000 people per day but was scrabbling around near the 5,000 mark. This was success rate of just 3%. Typhoid Dido thought this was a little unfair – people would be more inclined to isolate if they were paid to do so – and that her organisation was achieving a hit rate of between 10-20%. Hunt pointed out that even this was nothing much to boast about and could explain why Sage had described test and trace as having a marginal effect back in September.

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For most of the rest of the time Typhoid Dido seemed to do her best to contradict herself. Yes, they had known a second wave was coming but it had been impossible to predict how severe it would be even though every person and their dog had foreseen mayhem when the schools and universities went back. She also tried to lower the expectations of test and trace – “we’re only a small part in the national effort” – before claiming she had built an organisation bigger than Asda. The difference being that Asda does deliver. If the supermarket had been run like test and trace it would have gone out of business years ago.

Labour’s Graham Stringer was one of the few to attempt to point out the obvious flaws in Harding’s answers. If it was taking three days to get test results back then the system was dead in the water. Even Harding’s claim that more than 60% of results came back in two days was hardly anything to crow about. Typhoid Dido went silent. “If you want to be effective then you have to provide some answers,” Stringer observed. Though that rather assumed that Harding had ever remembered to ask the questions in the first place. Predictably, the meeting ended with no one much the wiser about anything. Was test and trace an inherently flawed, badly designed system or was Harding just a hopeless chief exec? Or both?

Over in the Commons, Hancock was in an unusually good mood. But then he often is when he’s come to the chamber with nothing much to say, as there’s not much that can go wrong. He swore on his life that not one Danish mink would infect a single Brit, before repeating the news about the vaccine that the prime minister and others had released the day before and ending by re-announcing that the quick result lateral flow test being piloted in Liverpool was going to be extended to 67 other regions.

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Not even the shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, could quibble with that and basically just gave Door Matt the thumbs up. As did everyone else. After months of nothing but bad news, MPs from all sides could do with something vaguely positive. No one knew if the vaccine would work or if the lateral flow tests would be of much value, but just for today they were going to take time off from the shit hitting the fan and allow themselves a moment of hope. However slender.



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