A computer programme released in the year Tony Blair was elected prime minister is being blamed as the reason some 16,000 positive Covid tests went “missing”.
It is a shocking revelation and one that could have devastating consequences for the many infected by Covid – and their contacts, given almost half of the 15,841 cases missed by the Test and Trace system still have not had their contacts traced.
Public Health England’s (PHE) interim chief executive Michael Brodie has blamed a “technical issue” for the scandal, while health secretary Matt Hancock said: “The problem emerged in a PHE legacy system.”
A problem the government identified in July, according to Hancock who, during his statement to the Commons this afternoon, said has been addressed with a contract being issued in August for a replacement system.
‘World beating test and trace system’
August is some six months into the pandemic and a few months after the government repeatedly promised a “world beating test and trace system” – one that the country is still desperately waiting for.
It raises serious questions beyond its impact on peoples’ health and threat to life – not least, how a 20th century computer software programme can be expected to deal with a 21st century pandemic?
The government has spent billions and billions of tax payers’ money in trying to deal with the outbreak and has even promised spending a further £100 billion on Operation Moonshot to test up to 10 million people a day.
And yet it has relied on software over 20 years old to try and deal with the biggest crisis to hit the country since the Second World War.
‘A staggering story’
“It is a staggering story,” said Sky News’ economic editor Ed Conway tonight (Monday), with a “computer error message at the heart of it”.
Because it transpires the UK’s world beating test and trace system runs on Microsoft Excel 1997-2003.
The problem with this software – apart from its age– is that it has a limit on the number of data entries possible. Which means, as the list was updated with new test results, space inevitably ran out and the limit – 65,536 rows – was reached, resulting in a computer error message and 18,000 Covid cases being missed from September 25 to October 2.
Tests are processed by Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 laboratories – the former being NHS labs and the latter being the “lighthouse labs” run by private companies such as Deloitte and Serco. Test results are then passed to PHE who then pass them on to NHS Test and Trace, who inform the infected person and immediately begin tracing their contacts to inform them of their need to isolate and quarantine.
‘It is putting lives at risk’ – Ashworth
For contact tracing to be effective, contacts must isolate within 48 hours according to Sage – the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
However, Hancock played down the significance of the missing thousands of Covid cases, telling the Commons: “Our assessment of the disease and its impact has not substantially changed as a result of these data.”
He said the error didn’t impact last week’s decisions to tighten restrictions but added: “Nevertheless, this is a serious issue which is being investigated fully.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth pointed out that the error 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.
“This isn’t just a shambles,” said Ashworth, “it’s so much worse than this and it gives me no comfort to say it but it is putting lives at risk.”
Ordinarily, given the scale of such a scandal as this, ministers would resign and restorative measures would be immediately put in place.
But this is no ordinary government and so Hancock, Dido Harding and the other ministers leading the UK’s world beating Test and Trace system will no doubt keep their jobs despite the massive – and life threatening – failing of the system they are in charge of.
Meanwhile, the people infected – and their contacts – isolate, quarantine and pray for the best.