Dido Harding has refused to apologise for any damage caused to the NHS’s brand by her heavily criticised test and trace service.
The Tory peer told a Health Service Journal summit that “far from apologising, I’d like to say thank you to the NHS staff” for helping support the system through laboratory work and clinical help on tracing.
Harding also said that it was “impossible to answer” whether she would be interesting in running the entire NHS when chief executive Sir Simon Stevens steps down.
During the web summit, she revealed that the bulk of Boris Johnson’s new £7bn cash boost for the service will be spent on rapid mass testing rather than contact tracing.
Test and Trace now has a £22bn budget, equivalent to nearly a fifth of the entire NHS budget each year.
Despite its chequered history, Harding vowed that NHS Test and Trace would hit the 80% target for reaching “close contacts” of people who test positive for Covid, without saying when that would happen.
At present, roughly 60% of close contacts – those who spend more than 15 minutes less than two metres from someone with coronavirus – are being reached.
The latest statistics for the week to November 18 showed that just 60.3% were being reached, down on the 60.5% of the previous week. It is now close to the record low rate of 60.1% in mid October.
Test turnaround times within 24 hours improved from 38% to 50.6%, though they are still well short of the 100% target set by Boris Johnson for the end of June.
NHS Test and Trace has been dogged by criticism since its launch in May, not least for its use of outsourced private sector firms like Serco and Deloitte and Harding’s own appointment by health secretary Matt Hancock.
Its performance on testing turnaround times has failed to meet a target of 100% results within 24 hours set by the PM, and its contact tracing rate has fallen to record lows in recent weeks.
Harding made a strong defence of the service, saying it had been started from scratch and was now on course to test up to two million people a day.
She said: “Rather than [give an] apology, I want to say thank you for the extraordinary support and help that NHS colleagues have brought to the overall fight against Covid and the second line of defence as I described it, of NHS Test and Trace.
“What we’ve done is we’ve protected our most vulnerable. We are objectively ensuring that care homes are safer, that patients coming into the NHS are safer, that our staff working in the NHS are safer. And so far from apologising I’d like to say thank you to the NHS staff for making that happen.”
Asked if it was factually incorrect to describe the service – which is run by the Department of Health and Social Care – as “NHS Test and Trace”, she denied the charge.
“No, I absolutely don’t [believe it is incorrect],” she said. “It’s a free at point of care, clinical service. I really don’t think it’s true to say that the NHS involvement is limited. NHS laboratories are absolutely core to it, NHS clinicians are absolutely core to all of our clinical oversight and governance, and we have a very large number of NHS professionals providing contact tracing services.”
“We should be proud of the fact that in other countries they have to do a lot of advertising to tell people that testing is free, because of course they don’t have a national health service. We do.
“We’re providing free point of care services as part of the overall NHS family, just as other NHS services that are provided by a mix of directly employed NHS staff, contractors and outsource providers are also badged NHS.”
Asked about speculation that she wanted to become NHS chief executive one day, Harding replied: “I’m really focused on what I’m doing now. I’m not thinking about what to do after this, and I’d find it impossible to answer the question, even if you were asking me where do I want to go on holiday next year. I’m afraid I’m focused on doing the job I’m doing right now.”
While stressing that she would hit the 80% close contact target, which is seen as crucial for the entire system to stop the spread of the virus by isolating asymptomatic cases, Harding also hinted she was in discussions to amend the measure.
Asked for a date when the service would hit the 80% target, she replied: “The challenge was to reach 80% of indexed cases. And then 80% of their contacts. And yes I do think we will hit those targets. I’m not going to give you an exact date, but we are making really good progress.
“Please don’t take the fact that I don’t want to give you a date to mean that it’s a long way off, actually that’s not the case.”
“I think it is a useful target. We’re actually currently in discussions with with Sage and SP-IM on updating their modelling as we’ve all learned so much since they’ve set the original targets for test and trace in April, which is where the 80% comes from.
“But I think it’s a very useful target for us to be really clear on where we add value.”
Shadow health minister Justin Madders told HuffPost UK that Harding’s refusal to apologise for using NHS branding was not good enough.
“She should of course apologise for the failure of test and trace on her watch and for her part in the major strategic error made in the first place to rely on untested private companies rather than local public health teams with a strong track record in test and tracing,” he said.
“It is hugely concerning as well that, not only could she not set a date by which contact tracing will be operating at the level it needs to be, but she offered no analysis or explanation as to why it has failed so far. It is almost as if she is in denial about the private sector failings in the system.“
A total of 152,660 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to November 18, according to the latest Test and Trace figures.
This is the first time since mid-August that the number has fallen week on week – down 9% on the previous week’s total of 168,250.
At the HSJ Providers Summit, Harding said she did not have any publicly available statistics on how many people have been asked to self isolate by the NHS app.
“I am very keen to get more data of how the app is working out into the public domain. We’re working with our statisticians internally, and with the UK statistics authority make sure that when we do publish everyone is confident that they are statistically valid.”
She could not say what the public-private split was in the funding of test and trace.
“It is a genuine mix and I just don’t have a civil service, third sector, NHS and private sector cut in my head for that split.”
But she suggested that the £7bn in new funding would largely be spent on new lateral flow tests “kit”, as part of a plan to rapidly scale up mass testing to two million tests a day.
In response to the latest statistics, Harding later said in a statement that the number of people identified as coming into close contact with someone who has tested positive has increased by almost 35,000, from 314,360 to 347,575.
“This week we have seen more tests processed and more positive cases contacted than ever before, which means we are curbing the rate of infection and informing those who otherwise would have unknowingly spread the virus,” she said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.