HENRY DEEDES watches Dido Harding explaining the coronavirus testing shambles

An eerie silence suddenly befell Committee Room number six just after 4pm yesterday. 

Baroness Dido Harding had just explained to the Commons’ science and technology committee how she’d come to be head of our vital testing programme.

The matter had been raised by Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) who had politely pointed out that her background was in the telecoms business. ‘And what a balls up you made of that,’ he was nice enough not to say.

Baroness Dido Harding (pictured) had just explained to the Commons’ science and technology committee how she’d come to be head of our vital testing programme. Harding insouciantly admitted that she hadn’t applied for the job. No, a minister had simply asked her, she said

Harding insouciantly admitted that she hadn’t applied for the job. No, a minister had simply asked her, she said.

Where this occurred, she didn’t say. Annabel’s, perhaps – or the oyster bar at Wiltons. ‘I wanted to serve my country,’ she added, coming over all Vera Lynn.

Stringer corrugated his nose. Some of the other committee members shuffled papers awkwardly. No qualifications, no application, no interview. How very congenial!

She’s a tough little clam Dido, I’ll give her that. Ahead of her appearance yesterday I thought she’d be turned into chowder.

Turns out she’s got that deft knack for deflecting responsibility – a velveteen buck-passer in pearl earrings. 

But then you can’t survive in the piranha-infested waters of big business as long as she did without knowing how to shift the blame.

Some of the problem was that 25 per cent of the people coming in for tests weren’t even showing symptoms, going against government guidelines. Each time Dido mentioned this she quickly interjected: ‘Obviously I COMPLETELY understand this.’ Translation: I’m not trying to blame the public, honest!

Some of the problem was that 25 per cent of the people coming in for tests weren’t even showing symptoms, going against government guidelines. Each time Dido mentioned this she quickly interjected: ‘Obviously I COMPLETELY understand this.’ Translation: I’m not trying to blame the public, honest!

Committee chairman Greg Clark opened proceedings. Funny bloke, Clark. 

During my time working this newspaper’s City beat, I observed him at close quarters when he was business secretary. ‘Useless’ was the word I often heard bandied about in pubs around the square mile whenever his name was mentioned.

Since then he’s reinvented himself as a dynamite Committee chair. If you don’t believe me, check out his dissection of some of the Huawei lot over the summer. He monstered them.

Harding sat opposite, her weight forward, elfin cheeks glowing with nerves. A jockey approaching the first at Aintree on Grand National day. Did you know she once booted her way around the course at Cheltenham?

We heard that daily testing numbers were currently sitting just north of 230,000 – but that demand was around three or four times that amount.

Some of the problem was that 25 per cent of the people coming in for tests weren’t even showing symptoms, going against government guidelines.

‘Why October?’ he asked. With schools going back in September, the Government should have got us up to that sort of capacity far sooner. Apparently this was based on Sage’s modelling. Ah, so it was the pesky scientists’ fault! How I would love to be a fly on the wall next time the Baroness meets with them. Pictured: A staff member dozes at an empty coronavirus testing centre near Heathrow Airport

‘Why October?’ he asked. With schools going back in September, the Government should have got us up to that sort of capacity far sooner. Apparently this was based on Sage’s modelling. Ah, so it was the pesky scientists’ fault! How I would love to be a fly on the wall next time the Baroness meets with them. Pictured: A staff member dozes at an empty coronavirus testing centre near Heathrow Airport

Each time Dido mentioned this she quickly interjected: ‘Obviously I COMPLETELY understand this.’ Translation: I’m not trying to blame the public, honest!

She reiterated the Government’s plans to hit 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. 

Clark’s lower jaw jutted in mock confusion. For a moment I thought he was doing a Stan Laurel impersonation.

‘Why October?’ he asked. With schools going back in September, the Government should have got us up to that sort of capacity far sooner. 

Harding interlocked her hands, squeezing them so tightly all the blood had drained out of them.

Apparently this was based on Sage’s modelling. Ah, so it was the pesky scientists’ fault! How I would love to be a fly on the wall next time the Baroness meets with them.

‘I strongly refute that the system is failing,’ she replied, almost yelling. Long queues at a Covid test centre in Southend-on-Sea

‘I strongly refute that the system is failing,’ she replied, almost yelling. Long queues at a Covid test centre in Southend-on-Sea

Labour’s Dawn Butler (Brent C) chipped in. What an agreeable change of bowling. Fast bouncers replaced by juicy dolly drops. 

Butler tackled her about testing numbers in the first week of September. Harding didn’t recognise the numbers she was quoting. 

Red Dawn scowled. It was clear the Baroness was not exactly her cup of lapsang souchong: Tory peer. Privately educated. Staggeringly rich. The animosity was palpable.

Much of Dawn’s anger centred around private companies being used. You hear this in the House from Labour MPs a lot. How they think we can beat this thing without mobilising the private sector is beyond me.

Misery guts Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow NW) was curious to know how we were going to get to 500,000 tests a day when we are only increasing capacity by around 10,000 a day.

More labs and new technology, apparently. I just hope, for Dido and Matt Hancock’s sake, that it’s achievable.

Before the end, Clark asked again about capacity.

Some of the weaker questioning had emboldened the Baroness by now.

‘I strongly refute that the system is failing,’ she replied, almost yelling. 

All I can say is she’s going to have to do a lot better over the next few weeks to convince us of that.

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