The new boss of the contact-tracing app has only taken the job for six months, Sky News has learned, raising concerns about the rapid turnover of executives at the top of the troubled Test and Trace programme.
Gaby Appleton, a director of academic publishing company Elsevier, was revealed by Sky News last week as the new head of the NHS COVID-19 app, which operates in England and Wales.
She is the third person to lead the app team in the last six months. None of the three heads have a background in public health.
The news that Ms Appleton was on a six-month secondment to Test and Trace was not made public when her appointment was confirmed, despite being announced to her colleagues at Elsevier almost a month ago, according to internal emails seen by Sky News.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson confirmed that Ms Appleton, who has been given the role of director of product for Test and Trace, was on secondment “initially for six months”.
The news that one of the most senior executives in Test and Trace is on a short-term contract may raise questions about the programme’s leadership, which has been sharply criticised following falls in the number of possible carriers of coronavirus it manages to contact.
Senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin broke ranks on Sunday to call on Test and Trace boss Dido Harding to step down, saying there was a “vacuum of leadership” that was “destroying co-operation and compliance”.
Sir Bernard told Sky News: “There is a sense that there is a lack of overall strategy that is at the heart of the problem.”
One Test and Trace source expressed frustration at the constant change at the top of the organisation by comparing it to the World War Two effort to crack German encryption, known as Enigma.
“This is perhaps the most complicated and time-pressured data management problem since Enigma,” the source said.
“Do you think the Allies would have deciphered the Nazi code if the leadership of MI6 changed on a monthly basis?”
Ms Appleton, who started work last week, has taken over from Simon Thompson, the former Apple executive who was appointed to run the programme in June, just before the first contact tracing app was ditched after it encountered technical problems.
Sky News understands that Mr Thompson took the role while he was on gardening leave from his previous job at online supermarket Ocado.
Last month it was reported that former Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe would take a key role overseeing testing at Test and Trace, but would only be in the role until Christmas.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS Test and Trace has a leadership team, drawn from the military, public and private sectors, who have built the largest diagnostic industry the UK has ever seen.
“It is the equivalent of building an operation the size of Tesco in a matter of months.
“Gaby Appleton’s role as director of product for NHS Test and Trace, which will have responsibility for the COVID-19 app, has been created to help enhance and run the app now it has been fully launched.
“The appointment is initially for six months and we will always ensure there is a strong leadership team in place for NHS Test and Trace.”
Although the app has been downloaded more than 18m times, its functionality has received widespread criticism, with complaints that it sends “false alarms” telling people they have been near someone with coronavirus.
Sky News revealed last week that people told to self-isolate by the app were not able to claim the £500 support payment for low-paid workers, even if they were eligible for it.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said both issues were being reviewed and that it was “actively exploring” ways to allow low-paid workers to claim payment from the app.