In the first five months after Dido Harding was put in charge of NHS Test and Trace, she held on to a part-time job on the board of Mind Gym, a “business transformation” company that was founded by an Eton school friend of David Cameron, VICE World News can reveal.
As NHS Test and Trace struggled in June and July, Harding even spent time helping to write Mind Gym’s annual report. In that report, the company’s founder and CEO, Octavius Black, said COVID-19 gave the firm a “strong opportunity” to “grow our share of the market”. Harding resigned from her Mind Gym job last month.
Mind Gym has a turnover of £48 million a year, selling psychology-based consultancy and “behaviour change solutions” to other companies. Black hired Harding as the “Senior Independent Non-Executive Director” of Mind Gym in July of 2018.
This is a part-time, but high-profile job at the firm. According to Mind Gym’s annual report, Harding was expected to go to a number of company committees as well as acting as “a sounding board for the Chairman”, and being “available to shareholders should they wish to discuss concerns”.
In May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “delighted” to announce that Harding would become the new chair of the NHS Test and Trace programme. Hancock said Harding would “oversee implementation of the new NHS app, mass testing and contact tracing programme”.
This was a crucial job in terms of the UK response to the pandemic, but the announcement did not make clear if it was actually a full-time job. And Harding did continue to work for Mind Gym for a period.
Harding’s appointment was always controversial. The Tory life peer is best known as the former CEO of TalkTalk, and her handling of a 2015 cyberattack on the mobile phone network’s customers, 157,000 of whom had their data stolen. In 2017 Harding left TalkTalk and became chair of NHS Improvement.
Responding to Freedom of Information requests submitted by VICE World News, the Department of Health and the NHS said they do not have records of how many days Harding has worked for NHS Test and Trace.
Mind Gym paid Harding a £60,000 per year salary. Harding was paid £65,000 a year for her role as chair of NHS Improvement, but her Test and Trace role is unpaid.
June and July were crucial months for the development of NHS Test and Trace. The new Contact Tracing Service was launched at the end of May, but it was widely seen as botched, and experts estimated the COVID-19 track and trace scheme was missing 75 per cent of cases in June. The COVID-19 tracing app that Hancock had promised in May was launched on the Isle of Wight, only to be withdrawn on the 18th of June because it didn’t work properly. In July the government admitted a quarter of the COVID-19 tests they claimed were counted as complete had not actually been returned in the post.
As well as sitting on the main board, Harding also sat on Mind Gym’s remuneration committee, which decides on executive salaries, and its risk committee. Company papers suggest this would involve around 20 meetings a year, alongside other duties.
Mind Gym papers show Harding was active for the company at this time. As Remuneration Committee Chair, Harding wrote a letter included in the Mind Gym annual report, dated the 10th of June. Harding asked investors to re-elect her to the board at the Mind Gym Annual General Meeting on the 13th of July, which they did.
On the 18th of August, Harding was promoted to the chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection, adding new responsibilities to her COVID-19 work. However, Harding did not finally resign from Mind Gym until the 16th of October.
In the annual report that Harding helped write, Mind Gym CEO Black told shareholders that “In the short term” the outbreak of COVID-19 has “affected our clients and our performance”. But, the report said, “In the medium term, we believe it creates a strong opportunity to accelerate our digital strategy and grow our share.”
Black said, “We are already getting great interest from clients” about how Mind Gym could help them deal with the pandemic. Black said their “pivot to digital” and their “strength in delivering live, bite-size workshops online” meant the firm could do well from the pandemic.
Mind Gym is well-connected. Black is a friend of former Prime Minister Cameron. Black’s wife, Joanne Cash – who was dubbed the “Tatler Tory” during Cameron’s time in government – also sits on the board of Mind Gym. Cash was a Conservative Parliamentary candidate in 2010. Michael Gove and other key Conservatives went to Black and Cash’s wedding.
Black has good access to Conservative ministers and officials. Hancock had a ministerial meeting with Black in 2016. So did Cabinet Office Minister Ben Gummer. In 2015, Cameron’s government awarded Mind Gym contracts to train senior civil servants.
VICE World News asked the Department of Health if it approved of Harding’s part-time work with Mind Gym, and if they thought it was OK for her to do this extra work on top of running Test and Trace. We also asked if the department in fact believed that Harding’s Test and Trace roles were not jobs that needed her full-time attention. They gave no response.
Mind Gym and Baroness Harding, currently self-isolating after getting pinged by the NHS app she oversees, were also approached for comment. They declined to respond.