Excel spreadsheet blunder blamed as Covid testing glitch ‘may have led to missed cases’

Published: 5 October 2020

Post Desk : People may have caught Covid-19 because an Excel spreadsheet failure stopped nearly 16,000 cases being transferred swiftly to the test-and-trace system, a Cabinet minister admitted today.

Health officials were understood to be racing to trace tens of thousands who had come into close contact with individuals who tested positive for coronavirus but whose details were not properly reported.

Asked if it was likely that some people will have got coronavirus due to the IT failure, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey told Sky News: “There may well be.”

The error is believed to have been caused by a spreadsheet containing lab results reaching its maximum size, and failing to update.

Security experts said they were “dumbfounded” at the use of Excel for a job as important as Covid data gathering. Richard Bingley, founder of Covent Garden-based Global Security Academy, said: “Excel is useful for small tasks but not for handling large quantities of metadata.”

Latest figures, taking into account the cases missed due to the blunder, showed rising infection rates in most of London, with 10 boroughs now above 60 new cases per 100,000 in the week to October 1. They include Redbridge at 81.6, followed by Hackney and the City of London at 74.3, Richmond 71.7, Haringey 71.1, Ealing 68.2, Newham 66.3 and Tower Hamlets 63.7.

Ms Coffey said all the individuals caught up in the IT mistake had received their tests results. But she was unable to say how many people needed to be urgently traced and told to self-isolate after coming into contact with a Covid sufferer, and for how many this had already been done.

Pressed about delays in contact tracing, she insisted that the majority of the cases involved in the IT error were for people who had tested positive in the last few days.

It is understood the Excel spreadsheet reached 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.

IT expert Mr Bingley added: “It’s very easy to code in errors, which causes over corruption in the data. It’s surprising that these large population statistics are being collected, inputted and stored in Excel. These are the types of development glitches that should have been ironed out before the system went live.”

Professor Rowland Kao, of University of Edinburgh, said: “All those individuals with positive results that were not entered into the system have contacts who remained an infection risk to others over this period and so we can expect that they will have already contributed extra infections which we shall see over the coming week or so.”

Downing Street said an investigation had been launched into how the error happened.

On who was to blame, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it happened while data was being transferred from NHS test-and-trace to Public Health England. Asked if Mr Johnson still had confidence in test-and-trace chief Baroness Harding, he added: “He does.”

Health officials are working a significant number of extra shifts to urgently contact people who may need to self-isolate.

Sadiq Khan and other mayors spoke to Health Secretary Matt Hancock today over the test-and-trace shortcomings. Afterwards, the London Mayor, who has been calling for stricter restrictions for the capital, said: “The litany of problems and failures with the system is letting London and the country down.”

Mr Hancock was expected to update the Commons this afternoon on the blunder.

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “How can the Government fix a problem if they don’t know the scale of it?

“Ministers need to get a grip of matters urgently.”

The latest figures showed the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in London has risen to more than 4,800 a week . They show an increase of 4,824 in the week to October 1, compared with a rise of 3,363 in the previous week, and 1,875 a week earlier. East London is the major hotspot in the capital with 249 confirmed cases in Redbridge in the week to October 1, 234 in Newham, and 207 in Tower Hamlets.

There were also 240 new cases in Barnet, 233 in Ealing and 216 in the Hackney and City areas. Some other areas are also seeing significant rises including Richmond, where cases jumped 142 in the week to October 1. The previous week there had been 50.

Hundreds of cases in London are believed to be among the 15,841 between September 25 and October 2 which were not reported and then identified after an investigation by Public Health England.

The rise may also be down to extra testing since London was declared an area of concern last month. The Department of Health could not give up-to-date figures for testing in London which was cut from 90,000 in mid-August to 65,000 in September. Nearly, 2,000 new cases were announced yesterday but they date back to tests taken many days ago.

The rising number of cases in the capital is believed to reflect the growing epidemic across the country and Boris Johnson made clear that more restrictions could be imposed if needed to stop its spread.

Analysis by the PA news agency shows that Manchester now has the highest rate in England, with 2,740 cases recorded in the seven days to October 1 — the equivalent of 495.6 cases per 100,000 people, up from 223.2 in the previous week. Liverpool has the second highest rate, up from 287.1 to 456.4, with 2,273 new cases.

The Prime Minister said the latest figures “corresponded” to the level which ministers thought the epidemic had reached.

He added: “The crucial thing is that in the next few days, week, we will see more clearly whether some of the restrictions that we have put in, the extra enforcement of the Rule of Six, the extra enforcement of self-isolation, the rules on masks and so on…we will see whether that starts to work in driving down the virus.

“This is all very much in our hands, collectively as a country.”

Mr Johnson was also unable to say how many people needed to be traced as they had come into contact with people who had tested positive but whose cases had not been reported. Mr Khan and some council chiefs have been calling for tighter restrictions in the capital.