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Missing 16,000 coronavirus tests glitch 'caused by large Excel spreadsheet file'

Ross McGuinness
·3-min read
A pedestrian walks past a screen on a bus stop displaying a NHS notice on test and trace on Oxford Street, London, as non-essential shops in England open their doors to customers for the first time since coronavirus lockdown restrictions were imposed in March. Picture date: Monday June 15, 2020.
Thousands of coronavirus cases were missed because of an IT glitch, it has emerged. (PA)

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.

BERLIN, GERMANY - APRIL 22: The logo of the Spreadsheet software Microsoft Excel is shown on the display of a smartphone on April 22, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
It has been reported that the IT glitch was caused by a Microsoft Excel file that was too large. (Getty Images)

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.

 In this photo illustration the NHS Test and Trace app which has been launched in England and Wales is displayed on a smartphone with a laptop on the background. People have been urged to download the long-delayed�Covid-19�contact tracing software. (Photo by Dave Rushen / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
People have been urged to download the NHS COVID-19 app to help track the spread of coronavirus. (PA)

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 despite cases rise?

Coronavirus: what happened today
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