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

- By Laura Don­nelly, Sarah Knap­ton and Mike Wright Health · Coronavirus (COVID-19) · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · Microsoft Excel · England · Public Health England · Manchester · Liverpool · Newcastle upon Tyne · Nottingham · Leeds · Sheffield · Matthew Hancock · Jonathan Ashworth · Imperial College London · London · Microsoft · Department of Health and Social Care · Exeter · Oxford · Oxford University · Loughborough University · St Catherine's College, Oxford

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.

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