Dido Harding will head a new ‘National Institute for Health Protection’ © via REUTERS

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The head of the government’s coronavirus “test and trace” programme in England will be given the job of running an “agile” new body responsible for dealing with pandemics.

Dido Harding will head a new “National Institute for Health Protection” under government plans to scrap Public Health England as an independent health agency and merge the body with the NHS test and trace programme.

Officials confirmed the Conservative peer and former telecoms chief executive, who was appointed by the government earlier this year to head its efforts to identify and isolate those infected with virus and their close contacts, will be appointed as its chair, with an announcement due on Tuesday.

The UK’s test-and-trace programme was initially criticised for being rolled out too slowly and local authority leaders have since complained about their poor access to data.

Officials have also been concerned the national test-and-trace strategy has been failing to reach large numbers of those who have been in contact with people testing positive for the virus.

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More than two months after Boris Johnson promised a “world-beating” NHS system to tackle the spread of Covid-19, Lady Harding and ministers were forced last week to row back on their centralised and national approach.

Following sustained calls from health experts and politicians to give more powers to local authorities with regional expertise and boots on the ground, the Department of Health and Social Care announced last Monday that “ringfenced” teams of national contact tracers would be assigned to councils in England from later this month.

“Given Dido Harding’s track record overseeing the set up of England’s sub-par test-and-trace system, many people will be worried to hear that she may be given a pivotal new role in the NHS,” Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat’s health spokesperson, told the Guardian newspaper.

“We need to have total transparency in how appointments of this kind are made, to ensure we get the best people for the job.

“Rather than focus on promoting yet another Tory insider, the government would do well to reflect on their handling of this pandemic and launch an independent inquiry to ensure we don’t repeat past mistakes”.

The new National Institute for Health Protection is expected to resemble Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, which has been praised for co-ordinating the country’s public health response to the pandemic.

Letter in response to this article:

A gloomy prognosis for top health appointment / From Justin McCracken, Former Chief Executive, Health Protection Agency, Altrincham, Greater Manchester, UK

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