Excel spreadsheet blamed for 16,000 missed Covid-19 cases

5 October 2020, 11:05 | Updated: 5 October 2020, 12:40

Test and Trace programme scientific adviser says PM's 'world-beating' system promise isn't helpful

By Matt Drake

Public Health England (PHE) has apologised for a technical glitch which meant almost 16,000 Covid-19 cases went unreported.

PHE said a technical issue resulted in 15,841 cases between September 25 and October 2 being left out of the reported daily coronavirus cases.

The technical issue also means 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 smaller multiple files to prevent the issue happening again.

There were 4,786 cases which were due to be reported on October 2 but were not included in the daily total on the dashboard that day, when the figure was given as 6,968.

The Government's dashboard said that, as of 9am on Sunday, there had been a further 22,961 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, taking the total number of cases in the UK to 502,978.

A note on the dashboard said: "The cases by publish date for 3 and 4 October include 15,841 additional cases with specimen dates between 25 September and 2 October - they are therefore artificially high for England and the UK."

Scientific advisor to the Test and Trace Programme, Clinician and Senior Researcher at Oxford University's Nuffield, Dr David Bonsall, told LBC that manual testing was not "built for a pandemic this size" and stressed the importance of automatic tracing via smartphone technology.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in May that the UK would have a "world-beating" system to track and trace Covid-19.

When Nick Ferrari asked how close the UK was to achieving this, Dr Bonsall replied: "I don't think it is helpful language... It's no my choice of language. The development of the app was an international development.

"We worked alongside governments internationally. The app in the UK has been the most tested and engineered of all of them, it is something to be proud of if people trust and use it."

Read more: Almost 16,000 coronavirus cases added due to system glitch

Boris Johnson said in May that the UK would have a "world-beating" system to track and trace Covid-19
Boris Johnson said in May that the UK would have a "world-beating" system to track and trace Covid-19. Picture: PA

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the missing coronavirus 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."

Senior officials said the outstanding cases were transferred to NHS Test and Trace "immediately" after the issue was resolved and thanked contact tracers for their "additional efforts" over the weekend to clear the backlog.

All cases were passed on to tracers by 1am on Saturday, meaning potential delays of more than a week in contacting thousands of people who were exposed to the virus and telling them to self-isolate.

PHE said every single person who was tested initially had received their test result as normal, with all those testing positive told to self-isolate.

Joint medical director of PHE, Dr Susan Hopkins, told Sky News: "There's no delay in people receiving their test results.

Caller explains how 16,000 test results could have been lost on Excel

Read more: Over 12,000 Covid-19 cases reported in UK after technical issues increase numbers

"The delays are in reporting to the dashboard and to the public and there's been a delay in contact tracing initiation.

"Public Health England apologise that this occurred and have put in place steps to prevent this happening again."

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "This is shambolic and people across the country will be understandably alarmed.

"Matt Hancock should come to the House of Commons on Monday to explain what on earth has happened, what impact it has had on our ability to contain this virus and what he plans to do to fix test and trace."

Listen & subscribe: Global Player | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify