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‘Putting lives at risk’: Thousands ‘blissfully unaware’ they’ve been exposed to COVID after data error

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read

Watch: Thousands of COVID contacts still not told to self-isolate

  • Government admits thousands of COVID contacts still not told to self-isolate after data error

  • Labour says government putting “lives at risk” with thousands “blissfully unaware” they’ve been exposed to virus

  • It follows Excel spreadsheet error which caused nearly 16,000 infections to go unreported

  • Visit the Yahoo homepage for more stories

Labour has said the government is “putting lives at risk” with thousands of people still “blissfully unaware” they have been exposed to the coronavirus.

It comes after a technical error – an Excel spreadsheet reaching its maximum size – caused 15,841 COVID-19 infections to go unreported between 25 September and 2 October by Public Health England, a government agency.

This led to a delay in efforts by NHS Test and Trace to find the contacts of those people and tell them to self-isolate.

Health secretary Matt Hancock, addressing the issue in the House of Commons on Monday, admitted only half – 51% – of the 15,841 COVID-positive people have so far been approached by contact tracers.

Matt Hancock and Jon Ashworth (
Matt Hancock and Jon Ashworth in the House of Commons on Monday as Ashworth accused the government of 'putting lives at risk'. (

He didn’t say how many of their contacts have subsequently been reached.

Labour said the number of contacts not traced and isolating could have been as high as 48,000.

Its shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, branded the government “worse” than a shambles.

He told MPs: “At one of the most crucial points in this pandemic, we learn that almost 16,000 positive cases went unreported for a week.

“That 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 at a time when hospital admissions are increasing and we’re in the second wave.

“This isn’t just a shambles, it’s so much worse than this. It gives me no comfort to say it, but it’s putting lives at risk.”

Hancock said: “This incident should never have happened but the team has acted swiftly to minimise its impact, and now it is critical that we work together to put this right and make sure it never happens again.”

Meanwhile, IT experts have questioned why Public Health England used Excel in the first place.

Read more: 'He needs to be more than just competent': What Labour MPs think of Keir Starmer so far

Dr Peter Bannister, executive chair for the Institution of Engineering and Technology Healthcare Sector, told PA: “It’s disappointing to read that a lack of awareness around the limitations of a consumer software product has led to such a negative impact for all those who are relying on the COVID testing programme.

“It’s widely known within medical device development that the use of commercial off-the-shelf products, such as Excel, requires additional testing to ensure that they are able to meet the stringent requirements of use in a healthcare setting.”

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