'50,000' Brits potentially infected with Covid not told to self-isolate after 'Excel spreadsheet file got too big'
UP to 50,000 Brits potentially infected with Covid were missed for days by contact tracers as a result of the latest testing fiasco.
And half have still not been told that they are high risk, meaning they could unwittingly be spreading the bug by not self-isolating.
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A glitch meant 15,841 cases were left off the official tally between September 25 and October 2 after Excel files got too big.
It meant new names could no longer be automatically added to key spreadsheets containing the positive count that are passed on to teams at NHS Test and Trace.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock tonight said the blunder is being “investigated fully”.
He said while half the cases had been reached since the error was caught on Saturday morning, this means the other half of confirmed infected patients have not been — and nor have the people they’ve come into contact with.
A government source said Public Health England, which collects the data, had repeatedly missed alerts flagging the glitch.
They said: “There was a problem with the tech, which was compounded by a human error.
“Alerts were created when the spreadsheet was full, but they weren’t spotted for a week.”
Although the 15,841 infected Brits were told their status, their data was not passed on to the £12billion NHS Test and Trace service.
On average, its teams identify three high-risk contacts for every positive case.
It means that potentially 47,523 Brits who were near an infected individual were not told to self- isolate or called too late.
Scientists advising the Government say 80 per cent of contacts must be tracked within 48 hours of someone feeling ill for the system to work well.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Hancock admitted the blunder “should never have happened”.
He conformed that half the missed cases have now been reached and quizzed about their contacts since the error was spotted on Saturday morning.
But experts warn the intervention is likely to be too late to prevent spread.
Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, said: “If you’re going to do your contact tracing, there is a very short time frame in which you can do it effectively.”
The Health Secretary blamed outdated tech for the problem and said the system was being upgraded.
Today was the first set of “clean” results after the glitch.
There were 12,594 positive cases, bringing the total to 515,571. And the daily death toll stood at 19, bringing the total to 42,369.
'PUTTING LIVES AT RISK'
Updated figures show the weekly rate of new Covid cases has now soared in dozens of areas.
Manchester now has the highest rate in England — 495.6 cases per 100,000 people, up from 223.2 in the previous week.
And Liverpool is now up from 287.1 to 456.4. Nottingham has also seen a six-fold rise from 59.5 to 382.4.
But Mr Hancock said the error has not substantially changed the picture or led to local areas wrongly escaping lockdown.
He told MPs: “The Joint Bio-security Centre has confirmed that this has not impacted the basis on which decisions about local action were taken last week.”
Officials meet every Wednesday to decide on which parts of the country need additional measures to combat Covid spread. They said the missed data mostly covered the tail-end of last week, and so will feed into Wednesday’s meeting.
Labour Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Thousands of people blissfully unaware they’ve been exposed to Covid, potentially spreading this deadly virus, at a time when hospital admissions are increasing.
“This is not just a shambles, it’s so much worse than that. It’s putting lives at risk.”
Experts slammed the Government’s reliance on Excel spreadsheets — first released in 1985.
Information from regional labs was automatically pulled together by PHE so it could be uploaded to the Covid dashboard and made available to NHS Test and Trace.
But it was running an older version of Excel that could handle only 65,000 rows of data.
Once the rising cases exceeded this capacity, they simply fell off. PHE said files are now kept smaller to stop it happening again.
Jon Crowcroft, Marconi Professor of Communications Systems at Cambridge University said: “The limitations of Excel in terms of Big Data are well known — if you look at how many people are expressing astonishment at this online, you can see that. Also, a simple sanity check on the data or error checks in the system might have told them when they hit this limit instead of discovering it after the event.
“This sort of thing is standard in sixth form or undergraduate computer science training too.”
Dr Peter Bannister, executive chairman of the Institution of Engineering and Technology Healthcare Sector, said: “It’s disappointing to read that a lack of awareness around the limitations of a consumer software product may have led to such a negative impact for all those who are relying on the Covid testing programme.”
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