Labour-affiliated trade union GMB has called for the immediate resignation of Tory peer and NHS Test and Trace chair Baroness Dido Harding after a series of controversies involving the public office holder.
Harding was criticised this week after she voted with the Conservatives in a House of Lords vote on the government’s immigration plans despite having promised to remain neutral due to her roles in the NHS.
Labour raised concerns last month over her membership of the Tory group in the Lords, describing it as a “flagrant breach” of the civil service code, by which the party says Harding should be bound.
She is chair of the NHS Test and Trace programme and in August was appointed as interim chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) body, which is replacing Public Health England.
GMB national secretary Rehana Azam said: “The Prime Minister said he couldn’t think of anyone better than Baroness Harding to run the UK’s Test and Trace programme, and that shows a clear lack of judgement. It’s scary that one of the Prime Minister’s cronies with a terrible track record has been put in temporary custody of our country’s public health.
“We’ve seen blunder after blunder under her leadership of Test and Trace and now the Baroness has further shown herself as a flunky for the Tory Party voting against efforts in the House of Lords to ensure the social care workforce are considered when the government brings in its immigration policies.
“This is not the independent public health expert the country and its staff need leading the scheme. There is now ample proof to show that the UK’s Test and Trace programme needs to be taken into public hands and led by experts and local authorities, not party-political cronies.”
GMB has made the call for Harding to “consider her positions” after the Test and Trace system saw 16,000 Covid-19 cases go unpublished in government reports due to what the Prime Minister called a “computing issue”.
The backlog of infections, which was left out of Public Health England’s figures, meant as many as 48,000 people who had been near someone who tested positive for Covid were not contacted and told to self-isolate.
The trade union has also highlighted that the latest figure for contacts reached and told to self-isolate, which is 68.8%, has seen the scheme hit a new low. It is the lowest number since Test and Trace started.
Government experts have advised that the test and trace system in England can only work effectively if at least 80% of “close contacts” are reached and instructed to self-isolate under Covid-19 rules.
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth commented this week on the involvement of outsourcing firms, saying “now is the time to not renew Serco’s contract, and instead give responsibility and resources to NHS labs and local public health teams”.
Serco and Sitel, the two firms hired by the government to help run the national test and trace programme, are set to receive over £1bn for their work on the scheme. Serco receives 40% of its annual revenue from running UK public services.
Harding has been the subject of ongoing controversy during the coronavirus pandemic after she was made head of the crucial Covid-19 programme despite having no experience working in healthcare.
Despite the Tory peer overseeing a catalogue of failures, the Prime Minister, his official spokesperson, the Chancellor and other members of government have all repeatedly asserted that they have full confidence in Harding.