Health secretary Matt Hancock has dismissed accusations of cronyism after Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding was announced as head of the new National Institute for Health Protection.
When questioned over a “whiff of cronyism” over the appointment of Harding, who is married to Conservative MP John Penrose, Hancock said he “strongly objected” to the claim.
He told Times Radio: “I ask people to do these important, big jobs who I think are best qualified to do it.”
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran called the appointment a “reward for failure”.
She said: “Given Harding's poor record in overseeing Test and Trace, her appointment as chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection feels like a reward for failure.
“Crucial positions should given for competence, not loyalty or ties to the Tories.”
Labour MP Justin Madders said: “I’m literally speechless, appointed to a body that hasn’t been created yet without an interview and with a track record like that – absolutely no transparency or accountability.”
Harding was the boss of telecoms firm TalkTalk when it was hit with a major data breach and has also been criticised over the performance of the NHS Test and Trace operation she runs.
Hancock said he wanted somebody with “preferably public sector and private sector experience” and with “clear leadership capability”.
He told BBC News: “She’s simply the best person who could be doing this job now…
“Also in the NHS she’s been the chair of NHS Improvement for the last over three years, she’s been expanding and building that testing capacity, the Test and Trace system that is so effective in finding people now and asking them to self-isolate, so we’re very lucky to have her giving this public service at this critical time.”
Questions over Test and Trace
Harding was appointed in May to lead the contact tracing programme, which relies on identifying people who have been in contact with a positive coronavirus case and getting them to self-isolate.
Since the launch of NHS Test and Trace, almost 20% of close contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 could not be reached and were not therefore asked to self-isolate.
This is 81.5% out of a total of 263,515 people identified as close contacts.
Last week, many of the system’s powers were handed over to local councils due to concerns that call centre workers employed by private companies were failing to reach as many as half of the contacts of people who have tested positive.
An NHS app that was said to be key to the scheme has been beset by delays, with the launch of a new public trial announced just days ago.
Hancock first suggested the app would be available in mid-May, but the government ditched efforts to develop its own technology in June amid accuracy issues and concerns about privacy.
Harding was leading telecoms giant TalkTalk when it suffered a massive cyberattack in October 2015 in which hackers accessed 157,000 customers' details, including bank account numbers.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) fined TalkTalk £400,000 over the breach, which ultimately cost the company an estimated £77m.
The ICO issued TalkTalk with the record fine for security failings that it said allowed customers' data including some 15,656 bank account numbers to be accessed "with ease”.