Dido Harding eyes NHS chief executive job

Controversial Conservative peer who ran Test and Trace says she’s thinking about applying to become Sir Simon Stevens' successor
Dido Harding PA

By Jim Dunton

08 Jun 2021

Baroness Dido Harding has confirmed she is considering a bid to succeed Sir Simon Stevens as chief executive of the National Health Service.

The Conservative peer, who was controversially appointed as head of NHS Test and Trace last year without a competitive recruitment process, admitted she is thinking about applying for the most powerful job in the health service.

The application process to find Stevens’s successor is open until Monday next week. No salary range is given in the application pack for candidates, which says only that the remuneration is to be “agreed by negotiation”. Stevens is due to step down at the end of next month.

Stevens was paid between £195,000 and £200,000 last year, according to the latest NHS Annual Report. But the report notes that since his appointment in 2014, Stevens has voluntarily reduced his pay from the chief exec’s designated £215,000 to £220,000 band.

Reports that Harding is considering a bid to become his successor surfaced at the weekend. The former TallTalk Telecom Group chief exec, who was appointed chair of NHS Improvement in 2017, confirmed she is thinking about applying for the role in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

“I’m thinking about it,” she told presenter Emma Barnett. “I have loved working in the NHS for the last three and a half years. It’s been the privilege of my life.”

Harding said she had not already submitted an application for the NHS chief exec role, and had been taking a break with her family after stepping down as head of NHS Test and Trace earlier this year.

“Today is my first day back as chair of NHS improvement,” she said. “I haven’t applied for the NHS job yet and I’m thinking about what I want to do with my life and looking forward to rejoining my NHS colleagues and picking up where I left off over a year ago.”

She added: “Many people around the country are thinking of what they’ve learned and experienced over the course of the last 18 months and I’m no different.”

Harding was asked about criticism lodged about the £37bn cost of the test and trace programme and whether she wanted to follow former special adviser Dominic Cummings’s lead in apologising for government-level failings over the handling of the pandemic. Harding did not do so.

“I think everyone – not just me, not just the prime minister, but everyone in the country – wanted to believe that testing and tracing and isolating on its own would mean that we didn’t have to do some of the incredibly horrible and unnatural things that we’ve had to do to contain covid," she said.

"I think it’s more that we’ve all learned a lot in the course of the last year. We’ve learned that the way you fight this really infectious disease is through a combination of things. It’s not through one single thing."

The legality of Harding's appointment as NHS Test and Trace head is due to be tested as part of a judicial review that has the backing of public-sector leaders' union the FDA.

Her appointment has also prompted concerns about "gaps" in the regulatory system from civil service commissioner Sir Ian Watmore, among others. 

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