The Daily Telegraph
16,000 lost positive tests blamed on old software
Up to 48,000 contacts may be ‘blissfully unaware’ they have been in close contact with sufferer, Labour warns
MINISTERS blamed the blunders that allowed almost 16,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases to become lost in their systems on aged computer software.
The fiasco occurred when an Excel spreadsheet, in outdated software used by Public Health England, was unable to cope with the high numbers of cases.
As a result, as infection numbers soared, thousands of positive cases were automatically thrown off the database, when they should have been passed to NHS test and trace.
Yesterday, Labour said as many as 48,000 contacts of positive cases may not have been traced, with “thousands blissfully unaware” they had been exposed to coronavirus and may now be spreading it.
Efforts to reach the missed contacts were further hampered yesterday when the phone system used by NHS test and trace call handlers crashed yesterday, according to The Times.
The failings mean that the daily data published since Sept 24 did not track the rise in infection rates. Figures now show these have tripled in the last fortnight, with 12,594 daily cases reported last night, up from 4,368 two weeks ago.
The updated data also reveals soaring rates across swathes of the North, particularly in cities with universities.
In Manchester, rates are 529 cases per 100,000 people – the highest weekly rate anywhere in the country – up from 247 cases per 100,000 a week earlier. Sharp rises were also seen in Knowsley, Liverpool, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Leeds and Sheffield.
It sparked fears that more areas could be pushed into lockdown, or that areas which are subject to restrictions could see movement curbed further.
Yesterday, Matt Hancock insisted the Government’s assessment of the scale of the pandemic had “not substantially changed” as a result of the changes. The Health Secretary said the fault lay in a “legacy” computer system run by PHE, which was identified as in need of replacement in July. He said work was under way on a replacement. Mr Hancock said the incident, which meant 15,841 positive Covid cases between Sept 25 and Oct 2 were not uploaded to national statistics, nor passed to contact tracers, “should never have happened”. But he stopped short of an apology.
While those who tested positive had been informed, their close contacts – who should have been tracked down within 48 hours – were not.
Mr Hancock told the Commons that efforts were “ongoing” to obtain details of contacts, with half of the positive cases now contacted, but with some cases dating back more than 10 days, Labour said the situation was “worse than a shambles”.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said the missing results were “putting lives at risk”. He said the unreported cases meant as many as 48,000 contacts had not been traced and not been isolated, with “thousands blissfully unaware they’ve been exposed to Covid, potentially spreading this deadly virus”.
Current figures show that for each person who tests positive tracers find three others who have been in close contact, and who might be infected – amounting, in this case, to 47,523.
Imperial College London research shows that 20 per cent of those in close contact with an infected person are infected – which would suggest around 10,000 contacts of the original cases may have contracted the virus.
Health officials yesterday confirmed the error was caused by a glitch using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
The problem arose with a centralised spreadsheet created to automatically collect data logged by private firms carrying out tests, so that results could then be fed into the test and trace system as well as into government dashboards showing infection rates.
PHE used an old format for the spreadsheet, which could only record 65,000 rows of data, when modern versions can record up to one million rows.
Because each positive test created multiple rows of data, the spreadsheet could only record around 1,400 cases. In previous weeks, the number of positive tests remained below this cap, but last week’s rises saw the data cap hit, so thousands of cases went unrecorded.
Updated data now shows huge rises in infections in areas that looked as if they were coping. In Nottingham, which was not on the Government watch list, weekly cases rose to 283.9 per 100,000, which last week would have made it the worst area in the country when compared with the pre-adjusted figures.
Although the Department of Health insisted the new figures would not impact the watch list, or alter current restrictions, Nottingham residents have been warned to brace for lockdown.
Alex Norris, the Nottingham North MP and a shadow health minister, said: “The Government’s latest data blunder means it’s hard to get a true read on Covid in Nottingham. However, it ’s clear that infection rates are increasing. When rates increase so do restrictions – if we want to avoid a local lockdown it’s critical we follow the guidance, the rule of six and social distance.”
Sheffield has also seen 1,363 new cases added to its total, meaning there are now 233 weekly infections per 100,000 residents. Yesterday, Sheffield University confirmed 474 students and five staff members had tested positive.
Sheffield council warned that further restrictions are “not out of the question”.
Other student-heavy cities, such as Leeds, Exeter and Oxford have seen big rises and could see tougher restrictions.
Dr Duncan Robertson, a lecturer in management sciences and analytics at Loughborough University and fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, said the error was “an absolute scandal” and warned that many people could have spread the virus unknowingly.