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Government’s appointment of Tory peer Dido Harding to a key Covid role was unlawful, High Court rules

Judges rule the appointment breached equality duty because then health secretary Matt Hancock didn't consider equality obligations when appointing the Baroness

THE government’s appointment of beleaguered Tory peer Dido Harding to a key Covid role during the pandemic was unlawful, the High Court has found. 

Two judges ruled today that then health secretary Matt Hancock broke equality law by both appointing Ms Harding as chair of the National Institute for Health Protection and Mike Coupe as director of testing at NHS test and trace in 2020.

Independent race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, which launched the legal action, described the court’s decision as “incredibly significant to the British people,” and an “important step towards equality.” 

Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Swift granted a declaration to the trust following a hearing at the High Court in December, which had raised concerns that figures with political links to the government had been appointed to key roles during the pandemic. 

The group claimed that the recruitment process was not “fair and open” and breached the public sector equality duty, which legally requires the government to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity in Britain. 

A claim lodged by campaign group the Good Law Project alleging indirect discrimination was however dismissed. 

The judges ruled that the government breached its public-sector equality duty because Mr Hancock did not properly consider equality obligations when appointing Baroness Harding — who is married to a Tory MP — and Mr Coupe, a former CEO of supermarket giant Sainsbury’s. 

They also ruled that there was a lack of evidence regarding how the appointments were made. 

“There is no evidence from anyone saying exactly what was done to comply with the public-sector equality duty when decisions were taken on how each appointment was to be made,” the ruling says.

In a statement, the Runnymede Trust said today’s judgement sends a “strong message” to the government that it “needs to take its obligations to reduce inequality far more seriously.”

“Neither Baroness Harding nor Mr Coupe is medically trained. Neither has a lifetime of public administration under their belt. 

“It should not be acceptable to drop our standards during complex health emergencies when countless lives are at stake — in particular the lives of some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Boris Johnson and his Cabinet seem to find themselves on the wrong side of the law time after time. 

“From crony contracts to ministers’ mates landing top jobs, it’s always the public who pay the price for Tory sleaze.”

The ruling is the latest scandal enveloping Mr Hancock and Baroness Harding, who led the widely criticised test-and-trace system before stepping down last October. 

Ms Harding also held a top position in Sainsbury’s alongside Mr Coupe before working for the NHS. 

Anti-privatisation campaigners said the ruling confirms “that corruption and privatisation go hand in hand.” 

“We can only put an end to these scandals by putting an end to the privatisation and outsourcing of public health,” We Own It director Cat Hobbs said.

“It is disgraceful that the government broke the public-sector equality duty to appoint Mr Coupe to this role when it was clear from the start of the pandemic that test and trace should have been run by local public health teams and headed up by people with experience controlling infectious disease.”

Keep Our NHS Public co-chair Dr Tony O’Sullivan said: “The failure of government to provide an effective test-and-trace service cost thousands of lives.”

The group said it has requested a criminal investigation from the Metropolitan Police.

A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said there was no evidence that Ms Harding secured senior positions through connections.

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