The head of NHS Test and Trace has been named the interim executive chair of the government’s new National Institute for Health Protection.

Baroness Dido Harding will oversee the institute, which she says puts the UK in the “strongest position” to stop the spread of Covid-19.

The new agency, launched today, merges Public Health England (PHE) with NHS Test and Trace, as well as the Joint Biosecurity Centre under a single leadership team.

Launching the National Institute for Health Protection at the Policy Exchange, health secretary Matt Hancock said the decision to scrap PHE was “designed entirely to strengthen our response” to coronavirus and future pandemics.

“To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all, and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future, we are creating a brand new organisation to provide a new approach to public health protection and resilience,” he said.

Harding will oversee the “global search” for the unit’s new chief executive.

“Combining the UK’s world-class public health talent and infrastructure with the new at-scale response capability of NHS Test and Trace into a single organisation puts us in the strongest position to stop the spread of the virus,” she said.

“PHE has worked incredibly well with NHS Test and Trace and with winter ahead the life-saving work we are doing is more important than ever.”

National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) responsibilities include:

  • NIHP local health protection teams to deal with infections and other threats
  • Support and resources for local authorities to manage local outbreaks
  • The Covid-19 Testing Programme
  • Contact tracing
  • The Joint Biosecurity Centre
  • Emergency response and preparedness to deal with the most severe incidents at national and local level
  • Research and reference laboratories and associated services
  • Specialist epidemiology and surveillance of all infectious diseases
  • The Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards
  • Global health security
  • Providing specialist scientific advice on immunisation and countermeasures

Harding was appointed head of NHS Test and Trace in May, and is responsible for overseeing England’s testing and contact-tracing programme, including the contact-tracing app.

The revamped app began new public trials on August 13 after months of setbacks. The app will be based on Apple and Google’s decentralised model. NHSX has been working with the tech giants to develop a new version of the app after abandoning its original model in June.

Since it was first revealed in March the NHS was working on a contact-tracing app it has been plagued with criticism over privacy and data protection concerns. It was expected to form an integral part of NHS Test and Trace, but when the programme was launched in May the app was noticeably missing.

After the programme launch, with Harding at the helm, the original version of the app was scrapped and a national roll-out date for the technology is yet to be confirmed.

‘Absence of transparency’

The decision to scrap PHE and appoint Harding as the new unit’s interim chief has promoted criticism.

Harding was chief executive of broadband provider TalkTalk when it was hit by a cyber attack in October 2015. Hackers were able to access the personal information of 150,000 customers, including sensitive financial data of more than 15,000 people.

The provider was later fined £400,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which said the attack could have been prevented if the telecoms company had taken basic steps to provide information.

Harding’s track record with TalkTalk prompted questions about her appointment to the NHS Track and Trace programme, which is responsible for handling sensitive patient data.

Professor Eerke Boiten, professor in cyber security at De Montfort University in Leicester, told Digital Health News: “Harding’s appointment seems inappropriate given the absence of a transparent appointment process, and her lack of background and chequered history on responsible handling of data.

“I don’t hold her responsible for app delays – that’s mostly down to exceptionalism and tech-solutionism of NHSX and the layer above that.”

Professor Boiten has previously spoken to Digital Health about the data protection concerns surrounding the NHS contact-tracing app.

Public health experts have also voiced concern over the decision to scrap PHE in the midst of a global pandemic, suggesting it raises more questions than answers.

Christina Marriott, chief executive of Royal Society for Public Health, said: “We question the timing of an announcement to scrap our national public health agency in the midst of a global pandemic and before any public inquiry any has started, let alone reported.

“We recognise that there have been some serious challenges in terms of our response to Covid-19, including the timing of the lockdown, the ongoing ineffectiveness of Tier 2 Track and Trace and postcode-level data previously not being available to directors of public health.

“Multiple lessons need to be learnt before solutions can be in place in advance of the winter. To do otherwise risks avoidable mistakes in subsequent waves of the pandemic which will only harm the public’s health further.”