Comment When something as serious as the UK government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is being openly mocked on social media, it’s clear all is not well.

Having made her first stab at notoriety by overseeing the data breach at TalkTalk, which exposed 157,000 customers details and cost the company £60m, Baroness Dido “Queen of Carnage” Harding is having another try with her shaky leadership of the UK’s stumbling test-and-trace system.

Just as the programme deemed necessary to underpin safe easing of the UK’s lockdown needed a steady hand on the tiller, Harding chose instead to talk about cake.

woman surrounded by piles of tissues uses smartphone app

NHS contact tracing app isn’t really anonymous, is riddled with bugs, and is open to abuse. Good thing we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, eh?

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“I have repeatedly said this is the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself. And what you’re seeing today is the baking of the cake is going reasonably well,” she said at the daily COVID-19 briefing yesterday.

Keen readers will be aware that the cherry referred to is the test-and-trace app, once deemed key to the NHS response to the virus, but now downplayed as an optional component. This is, of course, unconnected with the fact that the app has been said to be riddled with bugs and open to abuse. The cake is the wider test-and-trace system.

Harding’s performance prompted derision on Twitter, with her name briefly trending on Thursday evening. Commentators were quick to point out that her appeal to the public to do the right thing was a bit rich coming from a woman who sits on the board of Cheltenham Festival organisers The Jockey Club, which allowed 260,000 people to attend the horse-racing event just 10 days before the UK went into lockdown.

Another Twitter account quipped that it was surprising “Dido Harding hasn’t shared the feedback from the public about sticking the tracing app up Matt Hancock’s arse.”

That’s Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, who hosted the televised session. He was sunnily optimistic about the performance of the test-and-trace system, saying it had beaten his expectations. Still, he has the expectation of a man who “looks like your sister’s first boyfriend with a car,” according to British satirist and Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker.

Soberingly, others do not share Hancock’s view.

Earlier this week, a group of 12 leading scientists questioned whether the whole system is up to the job.

David King, a former chief scientific adviser and chair of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told The BMJ: “The government has placed huge emphasis on their test, track, and trace system in recent weeks, even labelling it ‘world beating.’ It is clear from our research that this simply isn’t the case – indeed, the system as it stands is not fit for purpose. This is the critical moment for the government to act now or risk further spikes.”

All this in a week when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised singletons that they could start to see friends and family within a “support bubble”, much to the glee of the country’s tabloid press. Probably the most relevant bubble is one shielding the leadership of the government’s COVID-19 response effort from the grim reality of Britain having the worst death toll in Europe. ®

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