Richard North, 20/08/2020  

The consultancy McKinsey was hired by the Department of Health and Social Care last May to prepare a report setting out the "vision, purpose and narrative" of the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP). For the six weeks that was allowed for the task, it was paid £560,000.

The new institute is now to be led by Dido Harding, who herself was a McKinsey consultant for seven years until 1995, before taking on executive roles at companies including Thomas Cook and Tesco.

The woman had no experience in public health before being appointed to the top management position in the organisation, has no qualifications in the field and, in her brief tenure as head of the English test-and-trace coronavirus programme has an unbroken record of failure.

All this we get from the Financial Times, the story demonstrating that the decision to replace Public Health England was by no means spontaneous or recent. And it cannot be a coincidence that the abolition of PHE, with the promotion of Harding, has been timed to coincide with parliament being in recess.

Apart from the Telegraph, which is still so far up Johnson's backside that it can see daylight, I have not seen a single media source or public body that has thought the NIHP a good idea. But, as I was writing yesterday, we have a government that simply doesn't care what people outside its circle of supporters say, and doesn't even bother to conceal its contempt for people who disagree with it.

In a way, therefore, we should welcome the appointment of Harding. It perfectly illustrates precisely that contempt that government has for us. And, given the serial incompetence of the woman, she can only end up being the gift that keeps on giving. With her remarkable ability of messing up everything she touches, it won't be long before NIHP is a total train wreck and we are looking back at the days of PHE with fond nostalgia.

The big problem, of course, is that if we do get a serious resurgence of Covid-19 or any other of the many complications which could intensify the public health threat, then the very last thing we want is Harding in a position of responsibility, where her incompetence can put people's lives at risk.

All of a sudden, that puts Harding's appointment in a different league. She is not just another quango queen, sitting out a position in some obscure sinecure. The woman is in a position where she can cause real harm to real people, as well as occasion serious economic damage, when control measures that she might inspire fail to work.

As it stands, even without Harding, the government's response to the Covid-19 epidemic has been lamentable. With her added input, it can only get worse. But if the disease fades away of its own accord, her uselessness will not cause us too much harm.

However, we are being exposed to a huge gamble, where Harding is probably a bigger danger than the disease, and the only thing that can save us from her is if the virus spontaneously ceases to be a threat.

Standing back from this, one might remark that public health has for a long time – if not forever – been a Cinderella discipline. In my day, it was rather unkindly said of public health doctors that they gravitated to the field if they couldn't handle real medicine, or were too dangerous to allow patient contact.

It certainly has been the case that our chief medical officers, from Acheson to Whitty, have been less than stellar individuals who have rarely excelled themselves in times of crisis. And if you want testimony as to the incompetence of the breed, you only have to look at the entirely inadequate planning for this epidemic, the UK branch of the pandemic.

But to appoint someone to a top management post in an operational public health organisation, with neither professional qualifications nor experience is a new low. It drags the discipline down to its lowest possible level and makes a mockery of the idea that we need experts to run complex technical organisations.

In all or any respects, this is an insult to public health professionals, who have taken the time and trouble to acquire qualifications and experience, and it is an insult to the public that their welfare can be treated in such a cavalier manner – and that they are so stupid that they will not realise that they are being treated with contempt.

It seems to me, though, that this latest milestone simply represents a long-term trend. Heads of public services and their staffs, those who run the utilities, and our governments at all levels, have become used to treating customers, taxpayers and voters with contempt, and have got away with it for so long that they don't see the need for change.

To an extent, they have capitalised on the inbuilt reluctance of the English to "make a fuss", a general laziness and apathy, and the fact that we are, as a nation, far too tolerant of poor service, and far too willing to defer to rank and prestige. Mentally, as a nation, I don't think we ever really left feudalism behind.

Then, of course, there are always the Judas goats, the conformist opinion leaders who tell us that the latest insult really isn't an insult, and we should accept contempt from our "betters" as our natural due. Constantly, we are being schooled to "know our place" in a land where "not rocking the boat" is deemed to be a good thing.

There is also the inherent respect for fairness, where the phrase "it's not cricket" still has resonance with people who have never thrown a ball in anger and wouldn't know a silly mid-off if it rose up and bit them. But it is this ethos which can be exploited to elicit sympathy for illegal immigrants, despite many of the queue jumpers lacking any merit.

In this context, we are constantly schooled that intolerance is a bad thing but, in the right context, intolerant is the right thing to be. We should be intolerant of lazy, self-seeking politicians who treat us with contempt. We should be intolerant of the likes of the oxygen thief Dido Harding who has no right to occupy public posts without experience, qualifications or track record.

We should most certainly be intolerant of thieving and indifferent local authorities who milk obedient citizens for council tax and fines, and give serial defaulters a free ride, and who milk the legal system to rob the poorest in their communities through wicked use of bailiffs and their extortionate charges.

There are many other areas where intolerance should be regarded as commendable, summed up as a refusal to accept second-best. And there lies what could be the heart of the problem – we are so used to accepting second-best that we have ceased to recognise it for what it is.

At least, though, courtesy of the Johnson administration, we have a new model – a new comparator to work with. Her name is Dido Harding, the very embodiment of what happens when a government goes off the rails. If we are tolerant of that insult, we really do deserve everything we get.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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