Business minister defends test and trace boss Baroness Dido Harding

The former chief executive of TalkTalk, who was at the helm of the company when it was hit by an £80 million cyber attack in 2015, will lead the UK’s test and trace scheme to tackle the coronavirus, set to launch tomorrow. 

Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe, 53, was raised on a Somerset pig farm and is the granddaughter of Field Marshall Lord Harding, the commander of the Desert Rats who became the most senior soldier in the British army. 

A former jockey, she studied Policy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, alongside David Cameron, and is the wife of John Penrose, the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.

Upon graduating, she held a slew of roles at Thomas Cook, Woolworths, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. 

Baroness Harding was appointed CEO of TalkTalk in 2010, serving in the role for seven years, during which the company was the victim of a cyber attack that saw the personal and banking details of 157,000 customers accessed by hackers. 

She was subjected to repeated blackmail attempts after the hack, with demands for Bitcoins in exchange for stolen data, which included customers’ names, email addresses, mobile numbers, home addresses and dates of birth. 

In the aftermath, TalkTalk was fined a record £400,000 for security failings which allowed the data to be accessed ‘with ease’ in one of the biggest data breaches in history. 

TalkTalk is thought to have lost £60million from the fallout with an estimated 100,000 angry customers leaving, mainly to BT, while 2015 profits halved to £14million and shares lost nearly two-thirds of their value.

Baroness Harding faced repeated calls to step down over the breach, but stayed on until 2017, when she resigned to focus on her ‘public service activities’. 

Later that year, she was appointed chair of NHS Improvement, responsible for overseeing all NHS hospitals. 

A powerful figure,  she refuses to believe her gender has ever held her back, nor will she endorse female quotas on company boards, which she sees as political meddling. 

She also thinks that workers have too much maternity leave, despite admitting being the boss has allowed her to successfully juggle her own career with spending time with the two daughters she has with her husband. 

She said in a 2015 interview: ‘I have an enormously privileged position.

‘I make a lot of money – a matter of public record – I have a huge amount of help, and I’m more in control of the day and what I do than someone working shifts on the checkout, or running the produce department in a supermarket.’

Baroness Harding has also packed in a career as a jockey, which saw her appear at Cheltenham, Ascot and even the towering Grand National jumps at Aintree.

One particularly nasty crash over the sticks at Larkhill left her strapped to a spinal board – though she still managed to catch a flight to a conference in Thailand the next day.

But, aged 24, she made a rash promise to her husband – she would give it all up at 40.

When the date came Penrose, who had not forgotten, made it clear breaching the bargain was a deal-breaker for the marriage.

Harding obliged, though does still race without jumps.

‘I miss the racing hugely,’ she previously admitted. ‘If you told me I could go off and do it tomorrow afternoon I would. For me that’s always been my way of shutting everything off and relaxing.’

Now, she is the leader of the government’s coronavirus tracing programme.

The NHS Test and Trace system for England will see anyone who develops symptoms told to self-isolate and get tested, with the close contacts of those who are found to be positive for the disease then told to quarantine for 14 days even if they test negative and are not sick.

The system is being launched without its NHS contact tracing app centrepiece prompting concerns that without the new technology the Government could struggle to tackle the spread of the disease.  

Experts immediately said the complexity of the programme meant there could be ‘several points of failure’ while the Government’s political opponents said ministers should never have largely ditched contact tracing in the first place. 

Mr Hancock said that adhering to self-isolation would be ‘voluntary at first’ but that he could ‘quickly make it mandatory if that is what it takes’.

He told the daily Downing Street press conference: ‘If you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace instructing you to isolate, you must. It is your civic duty, so you avoid unknowingly spreading the virus and you help to break the chain of transmission.’    

The launch of the programme was announced by Boris Johnson during an appearance in front of the Liaison Committee this afternoon as he admitted the UK’s testing capability was underpowered at the start of the outbreak because the ‘brutal reality’ was Britain did not ‘learn the lessons’ of previous pandemics.