Does Jenny Harries really deserve a damehood?

What will you get at New Year? A damehood? Or a case of Covid? Many of us, suffering from the nation’s broken testing system, may have to put up with the latter. By contrast Jenny Harries, in charge of that system, is today rewarded with the former.

If she appears to be failing upwards, it would not be the first time. Last March, according to ex No 10 vizier Dominic Cummings, she helped frame a Covid policy which led to “total and utter chaos… So Whitehall has promoted her, obviously.”

That promotion was to the head of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) from where, two weeks ago, she announced that her office was working “to ensure a good testing supply over the coming weeks” – all part of a strategy to get Britain bouncing back from its omicron slump by sticking countless swabs up the nation’s noses. The message was clear: test if a family member got infected. Test before seeing Granny. Test before New Year’s Eve parties. Test, test, test. Harries praised the public for “stepping up and ordering tests to identify cases and protect themselves and others”.

The only problem is that we did as we were told and now tests are like hens’ teeth. Pharmacists prop up signs in doorways proclaiming their lateral flow-test famine to avoid being asked about supplies every two minutes. The relevant Government website is no more helpful: “Sorry,” it announces, “there are no home delivery slots left for rapid lateral flow tests [LFT] right now.”

It’s a performance that a cynic might suggest is more worthy of a pantomime dame than the Honours List. No LFT, Ms Harries, surely no DBE.

It’s also made for confused political messaging. On Wednesday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid blamed a “global shortage” of tests and said there will be no “quick fix” – even as the PM encouraged us all to “take a test” to “enjoy New Year”.

That policy contradiction is only the latest mishap for Harries – who at the UKHSA has taken charge not just of testing, but of tracing too. In these days of astonishing infection rates, you may well have been contacted by her tracers. If you have, you might have been surprised that, as other nations like America cut isolation periods to five days, and official advice here reduced quarantine to seven, you were told to stay locked away for 10 days, as if tracers were reading from an old script.

Almost two years into the pandemic, tracing, which experts identified as critical from the outset (though not Harries, who defended the decision to scrap it last March) and on which billions have been spent, remains as sketchy as ever. Stories over these holidays abound of weary-sounding staff, ringing days after positive test results, demonstrating a haphazard interest in periods and events which could have triggered reinfection. For them, it can seem, the call is all. The box is ticked. Process is championed and purpose forgotten. No wonder the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts in October published a damning report stating that Test and Trace “has focused on getting programmes up and running and paid less attention to ensuring these programmes delivered the benefits they promised”. It insisted that the UKHSA fix it and “clearly set out how it plans to deliver the benefits expected from the funding”. That is, preventing outbreaks spreading.

The combined effect, over the holidays, has been destructive, a one-two combination to knock out festive fun. The lack of testing has ushered potentially infected people out unawares to attend parties and forge new chains of disease while official tracers and apps have confined many healthy people unnecessarily to barracks – a detention which could be shortened with negative LFT results on successive days, if only there were kits to be had.

It’s testing in precisely the wrong ways. Countless Christmases have been ruined with some families kept apart unnecessarily, others reunited riskily. Elsewhere, staff shortages brought on by omicron have seen supply chains straining, NHS rotas buckling and transport chaos at stations and airports. It’s all grimly reminiscent of the “pingdemic” earlier this year – when suspected Covid contacts were forced to isolate. That measure has now been scrapped for the double-vaxxed – as long as they test every day. But can they get a test…?

For parents, the fear is that the real nightmare is only beginning. Already, teachers’ unions are warning that so many teachers may be off as terms get underway next week that pupils could be sent home. “It does seem as though choppy waters lie ahead and that some form of disruption at the start of next term is looking sadly inevitable,” noted Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Up to a quarter of staff were absent in the last week of last term. No one is quite sure what the first week of this will resemble. “We’re not catastrophising that but we are saying we must have a sense of realism around this,” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC.

Harries will protest that she is not to blame, that she inherited doddery Test and Trace from Baroness Dido Harding, and that shortages both of staff and tests are affecting everybody.

That may be so. Her struggles, perhaps, have come more in navigating Covid’s choppy political waters. For example, she is, she says, “a naturally optimistic individual… I usually hang on to the positives”. Yet that will come as news to those who have heard her recent doomsday predictions about omicron – including Javid, whom she reportedly misinformed about the length of time between infection and hospitalisation for seriously affected Covid patients, thus undermining cheering suggestions that the new variant might not be as bad as first feared. Even when her own agency revealed straightforwardly upbeat news about omicron’s threat, she said it only presented a “glimmer” of hope. Eeyore is optimistic by comparison.

Gone is the gung-ho advisor who, in March 2020, starred in an astonishing fireside chat with the PM, broadcast from No 10, in which she poo-pooed mask wearing, and gave a big thumbs up to mass gatherings like Cheltenham. If Boris Johnson, in full Micawber mode, was casting around for pandemic positives, she seemed to be his enabler.

Today, ministers must fear she has reverted to type, to the official of Public Health England (PHE) that she was until 2019. It was PHE that, viewed as clunky, recalcitrant, foot-dragging, wilfully gloomy and domineering, was broken up in August 2020, deemed to be so unhelpful that shutting it down was the best option even in the midst of the crisis.

How they must fret that its spirit lives on. For Harries is not the only hangover from PHE. Senior figures from PHE’s 5,000-plus staff are now helping with the transition to UKHSA. Has Harries been recaptured by the public health blob?

If she has, she may not be alone. Some Westminster observers are startled at the transformation of Javid, whose new-found caution as Health Secretary (Protect the NHS), would be hard to imagine were he still Chancellor in charge of protecting the economy.

These are the shifting currents of pandemic politics. Pushing with the political grain last year possibly helped Harries win promotion to the UKHSA. This year, by contrast, advising public caution when the PM was desperate to “save” Christmas, saw her apparently given a fearful dressing down from Downing Street.

But she knows the score. She admits, after all, that just like politics, her own job is a communications game, where the simpler and starker the message, the better. That way, her audience – both public and politician – just might sit up and take notice. If they don’t,  Harries says, she can only blame herself: “As a public health professional with a really important public health message, if somebody doesn’t act upon it you need to think whether you have articulated it properly.”

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