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'We can’t change history': Missing 16,000 coronavirus tests glitch defended by government minister

Ross McGuinness
·3-min read

Watch: Minister defends COVID-19 IT glitch

A government minister has defended a technical glitch that caused almost 16,000 coronavirus cases to go unreported by saying: “We can’t change history.”

Public Health England (PHE) said 15,841 daily COVID-19 cases between 25 September and 2 October had been left out of UK tallies.

The error has caused a delay in tracking the contacts of people who tested positive.

But on Monday, work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey insisted: “Largely, test and trace is working very well.”

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m conscious something has gone wrong – we can’t change history, we can only change the future.”

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Therese Coffey arrives in Downing Street in central London to attend a Cabinet meeting as Parliament returns after summer recess amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic on 01 September, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey said the glitch that caused thousands of COVID-19 cases to go missing had been identified. (Getty)

She added: “The glitch that’s happened, everybody who had the result received that result and that’s the most important thing of all.

“PHE identified the issue, have fixed the problem and are now putting that through the test and trace programme.”

Quizzed by reporters in central London on the issue, Boris Johnson was unable to say how many contacts of positive coronavirus cases had been missed as a result of the testing fiasco.

The PM said: “I can’t give you those figures.

“What I can say is all those people are obviously being contacted and the key thing is that everybody, whether in this group or generally, should self-isolate.”

He added: “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.”

However, 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.

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

The technical issue was caused because some data files that reported positive test results exceeded the maximum file size, it said.

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

An NHS Test and Trace logo on a member of staff's jacket at a Covid-19 testing centre in Southwark, south London, after a range of new restrictions to combat the rise in coronavirus cases came into place in England. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
The unreported cases have caused delays in tracing the contacts of people who tested positive for coronavirus. (PA Images via Getty Images)

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,” he said.

Watch: Why are UK deaths low as cases rise?

Coronavirus: what happened today
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