The glitch was no mere rounding error in the government’s accounting, but another serious stumble at a crucial moment, when the British government is daily trying to decide where to tighten regional lockdowns to slow a second wave of the virus.
After the error was spotted and the lost cases accounted for, the government’s report of new daily infections nearly doubled — from 12,872 on Saturday to 22,961 on Sunday — sparking renewed angst among officials in London and England’s north, where most of the new cases were centered.
Michael Brodie, the interim head of Public Health England, said the issue was identified late Friday in the computer process that communicates positive results from labs to the country’s reporting dashboards. Some data files containing positive results had exceeded the maximum file size, he said, according to the BBC.
“We fully understand the concern this may cause,” Brodie added, “and further robust measures have been put in place as a result.”
While health authorities said the glitch had not affected the pandemic response at the local level, 10 Downing Street announced an investigation and politicians in the opposition Labour Party described the episode as “shambolic.”
Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson told the Guardian newspaper the missing data was the latest in a “pandemic of incompetence from the government.”
Anderson said, “There are mistakes and there are really serious mistakes. This is a highly significant mistake that tells me the system is not fit for purpose.”
Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Radio, “I think the thing that surprised me was the size of it — almost 16,000 results — going missing over the course of a week is quite alarming, I think.”
Hunter said for contact tracing to effective, people who were in proximity with those who test positive need to be reached quickly.
“And the reason is that we know now that this infection is most infectious at around the time people develop symptoms — so very early on in the illness,” he said. “It really needs to be done within a matter of a day or so if you’re going to actually have any effect.”
The error delivered another significant blow to the public perceptions of British’s stuttering contact tracing efforts, which critics say are already too far slow to properly track the spread of the outbreak.
Almost 16,000 cases of coronavirus in the UK went unreported because of a glitch caused by an Excel spreadsheet, it has been reported.
Public Health England (PHE) said 15,841 daily COVID-19 cases between 25 September and 2 October had been left out of UK totals.
The error has caused delays in tracking the contacts of people who tested positive.
On Monday, the Press Association (PA) news agency reported that the problem was caused by a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet reaching its maximum file size.
This prevented new names being added in an automated process, it said.
PA said files have now been split into smaller batches to prevent the error from happening again.
Previously, PHE said the issue was caused by some data files reporting positive test results exceeding the maximum file size.
Meanwhile, a government minister defended the error, saying: “We can’t change history”.
Watch: Minister unable to give number affected by glitch
Work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey told BBC1’s Breakfast programme she did not know how many potentially infectious contacts of COVID-19 patients were not traced because of the glitch.
“I’m afraid I just don’t have that information,” she said.
She also admitted that people may have been infected because the NHS Test and Trace scheme was not aware of the unreported cases.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said of the glitch: “This is shambolic and people across the country will be understandably alarmed.”
He called on health secretary Matt Hancock to go to the House of Commons on Monday and 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”.
The glitch means the daily coronavirus totals published on the government’s COVID-19 dashboard in the past week have been lower than the real numbers.
The unreported numbers were included instead in Saturday and Sunday’s totals of 12,872 and 22,961 cases respectively.
A note on the government 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.”
Michael Brodie, the interim chief executive at PHE, said the “technical issue” was identified overnight on Friday, 2 October, in the data load process that transfers COVID-19 positive lab results into reporting dashboards.
“NHS Test and Trace and PHE have worked to quickly resolve the issue and transferred all outstanding cases immediately into the NHS Test and Trace contact tracing system and I would like to thank contact tracing and health protection colleagues for their additional efforts over the weekend,”