Labour warns on next NHS England chief as Dido Harding expected to apply

The next chief executive of NHS England must be someone with “a proven track record”, Labour has said, after it emerged that the former test and trace chief Dido Harding was expected to stand.

Peter Walker 

It is understood that Harding, a Conservative peer, is considering formally applying to replace Sir Simon Stevens, who is leaving the job in July after seven years.

While Stevens’ whole career has been in healthcare and health management, Harding spent the bulk of her working life in areas such as supermarkets and telecoms, notably as head of the Talk Talk group.

Since 2017, she has chaired the board of NHS Improvement, an oversight arm of NHS England. Her first day-to-day management job in health came a year ago when she was appointed to lead the Covid test and trace service in England, with a budget that rose to £37bn.

Harding, who is married to the Conservative MP John Penrose, faced regular criticism over the service’s performance and has acknowledged failings in how it has operated, though allies argue she has been unfairly maligned.

Test and trace has been blamed by some for failing to better curb the spread of Covid variants, such as the highly transmissible Delta variant first identified in India, which has become dominant in the UK and is threatening plans to drop most lockdown restrictions this month.

In August, Harding was also made the interim chair of the new UK Health Security Agency, which integrates the work of test and trace and takes over from Public Health England. Jenny Harries, formerly England’s deputy chief medical officer, has now taken over the role.

The next head of NHS England will face the toll of disruption to non-Covid services, with one analysis saying more than 4.5 million people missed out on hospital treatment last year alone.

Labour did not comment directly on Harding, but made plain the party was sceptical at the idea of her taking on ultimate responsibility for about 1.3 million NHS staff and an annual budget of more than £115bn.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said NHS patients and workers “will be looking for a new chief executive able to out-manoeuvre [the chancellor] Rishi Sunak” and secure enough funding for the service.

He added: “Given the scale of the waiting list backlog including for cancer and mental health care, the NHS needs someone with a proven track record of improving services for patients.”

Speaking separately, Justin Madders, the junior shadow health minister, said: “We hope the recruitment process takes candidates’ recent achievements into account, but test and trace’s performance speaks for itself.”

Another key Covid-related appointee, Kate Bingham, who led the vaccines taskforce until the end of last year, is set to become a dame in this week’s Queen’s birthday honours, according to a report.

The award for Bingham will be among a series of honours given to people who have played a role in combating coronavirus, the Sunday Telegraph said. Bingham has been praised for the success of the UK’s vaccine programme after rapidly securing contracts for large numbers of jabs of different types.