Testing scandal: ‘IT failure’ blamed as thousands still to be traced

5 October 2020, 16:46 | Updated: 5 October 2020, 23:46

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Thousands of coronavirus test results went unreported after an IT failure, delaying tracing the contacts of those who tested positive, it has been revealed.

Only half of the 16,000 missing cases have been contacted for a second time by Test and Trace, Matt Hancock told the Commons.

The Health Secretary was updating MPs on the coronavirus pandemic in the wake of the Excel spreadsheet glitch which saw nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases go missing.

He told the Commons that only 51% of the missing 15,841 cases were contacted by tracers over the weekend, meaning around 7,760 people have not yet been chased up.

Mr Hancock said the government's assessment of the pandemic has "not substantially changed" after the data error caused thousands of positive cases to be missed out the total figures.

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock was giving a statement to the Commons on Monday afternoon
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was giving a statement to the Commons on Monday afternoon. Picture: PA

In a statement, he told the Commons: "This morning the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) presented to me their updated analysis of the epidemic based on the new figures.

"The chief medical officer (Chris Whitty) has analysed that our assessment of the disease and its impact has not substantially changed as a result of these data.

"The JBC has confirmed that this has not impacted the basis on which decisions about local action were taken last week. Nevertheless, this is a serious issue that is being investigated fully."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the missing cases: "What happened here was that some of the data got truncated and it was lost.

"But what they have done now is not only contacted all the people who were identified as having the disease - that was done in the first place - but they are now working through all the contacts as well.

"The key thing, I would say, and it goes for everybody, is that if you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace then you must self-isolate, if you are told you have been in contact with somebody who has the virus.

"There is support of £500 for doing so and of course a £10,000 fine if you don't."

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On Monday, Public Health England (PHE) apologised for the technical glitch that saw cases between 25 September and 2 October being left out of the reported daily infection figures.

It meant that daily totals reported on the government's coronavirus dashboard over the last week have been lower than the true number.

The problem was reportedly caused by an Excel spreadsheet reaching its maximum file size, which stopped new names being added in an automated process. The files have now been split into multiple smaller files to prevent the issue from happening again.

Speaking in the Commons, the health secretary sought to reassure the country "that every single person that tested positive was told that result in the normal way in the normal timeframe".

"They were told that they needed to self-isolate, which is of course now required by law," he added.

"However, these positive test results were not reported in the public data and were not transferred to the contact tracing system."

Mr Hancock said just over half of the positive cases have been contacted a second time for contact tracing purposes.

"Contact tracing of these cases began first thing Saturday," he said.

"We brought in 6,500 hours of extra contact tracing over the weekend and I can report to the House as of 9am today 51% of the cases have now been contacted a second time for contract tracing purposes.

"I want to reassure the House that outbreak control in care homes, schools and hospitals has not been directly affected because dealing with outbreaks in these settings does not primarily rely on this PHE system."

He added: "This incident should never have happened but the team has acted swiftly to minimise its impact, and now it is critical that we work together to put this right and make sure it never happens again."

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, responding to Mr Hancock, accused the government of "failing on the basics" on testing and said the problems with testing were "putting lives at risk", adding his opposite man "should apologise".

He said: "Yesterday we had a health minister saying this could be a moment of national pride like the Olympics. We've had a Prime Minister in a complete muddle over the rules and now, at one of the most crucial points in this pandemic, we learn that almost 16,000 positive cases when unreported for a week.

"That means as many as 48,000 contacts not traced and not isolating. Thousands of people blissfully unaware they've been exposed to Covid potentially spreading this deadly virus at a time when hospital admissions are increasing and we're in the second wave.

"This isn't just a shambles, it's so much worse than this and it gives me no comfort to say it, but it's putting lives at risk and he should apologise when he responds."

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