NHS tsar Dido Harding is on board of Cheltenham Festival

Revealed: NHS test and trace tsar Dido Harding is on board of Cheltenham Festival that went ahead despite coronavirus threat as experts fear the event caused spike in Covid-19 deaths

  • Dido Harding sits on board of Jockey Club, owners of Cheltenham racecourse
  • The ex-jockey is married to a Tory MP and studied at Oxford with David Cameron 
  • Former TalkTalk CEO was at the helm when the company was hit by cyber attack  
  • NHS’ track and trace launch has been branded a ‘complete shambles’ by workers 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

There is growing fury over the decision to hand control of the NHS’ Track and Trace programme to a Tory MP’s wife also on the executive committee that allowed 260,000 people to attend the Cheltenham Festival days before lockdown began.

Dido Harding sits on the board of the Jockey Club, the organisers of the world-famous horse racing event, which scientists and doctors called a ‘disaster’ for Britain and claimed accelerated the spread of coronavirus in the UK where at least 38,000 have died.

A former jockey herself before going on to run internet giant TalkTalk, Ms Harding was elevated to the House of Lords by her university friend David Cameron in 2014, and now works for the NHS running the track and trace service promised to lead the UK out of lockdown.

Baroness Harding has not publicly commented on the decision to allow Cheltenham to go ahead between March 10 and 13  – but the Jockey Club has insisted that it complied with Government advice at the time. A spokesman told MailOnline he couldn’t comment on whether their board member Ms Harding attended the festival this year. 

Cheltenham Festival spectators compared it to the ‘last days of Rome’ as hundreds of thousands of people partied knowing Boris Johnson was imminently going to cancel all sporting events and impose a nationwide lockdown. 

Pictures of the packed stands and bars at the world famous racecourse shocked Britain at a time when Covid-19 cases were increasing fast and people were already being urged to social distance.

Dido Harding sits on the board of the Jockey Club, which organised the four-day Cheltenham Festival in March

The packed stands on Day 4 at Cheltenham, which went ahead despite critics saying it would inevitably increase the spread of Covid-19

Data has shown a cluster of Covid-19 patients needing hospitalisation in the area surrounding Cheltenham Racecourse which attracted 250,000 people through the turnstiles of Prestbury Park during the four-day festival which took place between March 10-13

Critics have questioned whether she is the right person to run the track and trace programme given her role at Cheltenham and problems at TalkTalk

Four days later, on March 17, the British Horseracing Authority suspended all race meetings, including the Grand National at Aintree. 

Leaked NHS data later revealed a high concentration of coronavirus hospitalisations in the area next to Cheltenham Racecourse. And data gathered from millions of volunteers found coronavirus ‘hotspots’ in Gloucestershire in the days and weeks after the March meeting, the BBC reported this week.

She studied Policy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, alongside David Cameron, and is married to John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare

Baroness Harding, who is married to John Penrose, the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, was also the CEO of TalkTalk when it suffered one of the worst data hacks in British history in 2015. 

As Baroness Harding’s role at Cheltenham emerged on social media, Nick Flaks tweeted:  ‘Wait…Dido Harding is in charge of the NHS track-and-trace app? The same Dido Harding who was Chief Executive at TalkTalk during a huge data breach? AND is currently a Director at Cheltenham Racecourse (where loads of people became infected)? State of this country, honestly’.

Rich Purton wrote: So Dido Harding boss of the company handed the track & trace contract was also a director of the Jockey Club responsible for Cheltenham races going ahead. What could possibly go wrong?’. And Maurice Kilbride said: ‘This woman was on the jockey club board that allowed Cheltenham to go ahead – no whiff of jobs for the boys?’.

When she ran TalkTalk the details of 156,959 customers – including their name and contact details – were stolen by cyber criminals who also managed to get hold of the bank accounts of 15,000 of those victims. 

TalkTalk was given a record £400,000 fine by the Information Commissioner, and now its former boss in charge of the Government’s track and trace programme handling the data of millions of Britons.  The medical records of coronavirus patients who use the NHS’s test and trace programme will be kept for 20 years and stored on a system owned by internet giant Amazon. 

Scientists have claimed that the decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead caused extra coronavirus deaths across the UK – and a cluster of cases locally.

Earlier this week, Professor Tim Spector said the number of infections ‘increased several fold’ around the area because of the pre-lockdown event in March. ‘They’ll have caused increased suffering and death,’ the epidemiologist, of King’s College London, told Radio 4’s File on 4. 

Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust has recorded 187 deaths from the coronavirus so far, more than in larger neighbours including Bristol where there have been 115 fatalities, followed by Swindon (111) and Bath (60)

The Jockey Club has repeatedly defended its decision to proceed with the Festival – and Baroness Harding sits on the board.


Journalist Melanie Finn, who attended the horse-racing festival, told the BBC that basic safety rules were ignored at Cheltenham.

She said: ‘It was like the last days of the Roman Empire, and I think there was a little bit of a sense that if it was open, by God they were going to party.’

Ms Finn, who flew from Dublin, added: ‘We had already cancelled the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, and that in itself was huge for us.

‘People were in shock. No-one could believe that was happening. That was an indicator of how serious the Irish government was.’

Ms Finn revealed that she asked her employer to fly her home during the festival because she was concerned about the potential spread of Covid-19.

She told the BBC that she developed symptoms of the coronavirus just a week after Cheltenham – the average incubation period is around five days.   

Liverpool’s Champions League match against Atletico Madrid was also blamed for 41 additional deaths in the UK, according to one study. 

Other countries were more cautious at that time, cancelling and postponing sporting events. But on the first weekend in March in the UK, there was a full programme of football in England and Scotland, as well as five horse racing meetings, and Six Nations rugby at Twickenham between England and Wales, which Boris Johnson attended with his pregnant fiancee Carrie Symonds.

Professor Spector says the case rates ‘increased several-fold’ locally around Cheltenham and Liverpool but the Government insists many factors could be behind the rises. 

Journalist Melanie Finn, who attended the horse-racing festival, told the BBC that basic safety rules were ignored at Cheltenham.

She said: ‘It was like the last days of the Roman Empire, and I think there was a little bit of a sense that if it was open, by God they were going to party.’

Ms Finn, who flew from Dublin, added: ‘We had already cancelled the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, and that in itself was huge for us. People were in shock. No-one could believe that was happening. That was an indicator of how serious the Irish government was.’ 

Former TalkTalk CEO Baroness Dido Harding will lead the UK’s test and trace scheme to tackle the coronavirus. While at TalkTalk it was victim of a data breach that saw customers details stolen including 15,000 back account details

Baroness Harding is a former jockey, though she quit racing after hitting 40 and promising her husband she’d stop. 

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.

She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford alongside David Cameron and then worked at at Thomas Cook, Woolworths, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

As TalkTalk CEO, she was presented with the Daily Mail wooden spoon award for ‘Worst Customer Service’

She was appointed CEO of TalkTalk in 2010 but in 2015 personal and banking details of 157,000 customers were accessed by hackers. 

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.

Despite being a female role model she does not back female quotas for company boars as she claims they are political meddling.

The senior NHS figure also thinks maternity leave is too generous 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.

The NHS test-and-trace programme she is running was branded a ‘complete shambles’ last night after staff claimed they weren’t prepared for its launch.

Several workers employed as contact tracers revealed yesterday that they still hadn’t been given their log-in details to get onto the computer system.

Others said that when they did key in their codes the website just crashed and a message appeared telling them ‘this site can’t be reached.’

Patients who had tested positive for the virus meanwhile, who were trying to tell the NHS about others they might have infected also said they couldn’t log on.

While the Department of Health denied the whole system had crashed, they admitted some users were experiencing log-on ‘issues’ which were being ‘rapidly resolved.’

The long-awaited test-and-trace programme was rolled out at 9am yesterday and it is the most significant change in the Government’s strategy since the lockdown began two months ago.

Anyone with virus symptoms- a cough, temperature or loss of taste or smell – is being advised to book a test via the NHS website or calling 119.

If the results are positive, they will called by one of 25,000 ‘contact tracers’, or receive a text or email, and told to self-isolate for seven days.

Fans of Atletico cheer prior to the UEFA Champions League round of 16, second leg soccer match between Liverpool FC and Atletico Madrid in Liverpool on March 11

They will then be asked to provide the details of anyone with whom they have recently had close contact, either by doing this on the phone or online.

These individuals will themselves receive a text or email advising them to stay at home for up to 14 days even if they don’t have any virus symptoms during that time.

One junior doctor who is employed as a contact tracer explained she only found out the system was going live after watching Boris Johnson’s announcement on the news on Wednesday.

She said staff were only sent an email outlining the launch ‘very late’ on Wednesday night which also contained their log-in details.

Speaking anonymously to Radio 4’s World-At-One, she explained: ‘We need it but I have my reservations about the way it’s being rolled out.

‘I know there will be teething problems – we have been warned about that.

‘But I think the teething problems are going to take quite a long time to get through.

‘I think the longer it takes the confidence levels amongst the public, which we are completely and utterly reliant on, the further at risk they are, the more likely it is that people won’t cooperate.

‘I have tried to do things but they haven’t given the final log-on information to enable me to get on to the system to do the work.

‘We received the information that it was going live very late last night, much later than the Prime Minister had told us all during the day.

‘They said ‘you are going to get your final log-on details’ and that came about 10-20 minutes later.

‘I tried last night – because you have to authenticate yourself – at about 10:30 or 11 o’clock and the server wasn’t able to respond.

‘I tried that again this morning at 8am and got the same response. I called the help desk and they told they are aware the server is overloaded with people trying to register this final time.

‘There is still another email they need to send me so even if they do get on the server it is not going to work anyway.’

Another anonymous contact tracer said: ‘It’s been a complete shambles.

‘I was told when I joined I would have all the login details needed to be able to get on the system.

‘Yet I’m sat here on the day it’s launched with nothing to do because I’ve still not been sent them.’

Several contact tracers said they only received an email telling them the system was being launched at 10.30pm on Wednesday night, hours after Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock had announced it on the news.

On top of these glitches, patients who have tested positive for the virus have been unable to get onto the website to fill-in details of their close contacts.

One doctor said she had received a text from the NHS test-and-trace service about her positive result and tried to log-on to the site, but hadn’t been given a password.

Patients who test positive are meant to be able to fill in the details of their ‘close contacts’ themselves or alternatively they can do this over-the-phone with a contact tracer.

Yesterday a Labour MP claimed that the NHS official leading the programme, Baroness Dido Harding, had admitted it would not be properly up-and-running until the end of next month.

Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter said that Lady Harding had informed him and other MPs that the ‘local operational rollout of this would not happen until the end of June.’ 

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