An Excel bungle that led to thousands of COVID cases being lost in government systems masked daily cases in the UK hitting 11,000.
A clearer picture of the country’s outbreak has emerged after some 16,000 confirmed infections had to be added to the daily totals running back more than a week.
Counted by the date specimens were collected, rather than the date the government published them, the UK had 11,404 cases on September 30, almost as many as were reported in the next two days combined.
The daily number has not been below 6,000 since September 21 on the alternative measure – although the government has reported lower figures on several days in that period.
The extraordinary meltdown was caused by an Excel spreadsheet containing lab results reaching its maximum size, and failing to update. Some 15,841 cases between September 25 and October 2 were not uploaded to the government dashboard.
As well as underestimating the scale of the outbreak in the UK, critically the details were not passed to contact tracers, meaning people exposed to the virus were not tracked down.
Boris Johnson was unable even to say how many people were being contact traced in the wake of the bungle – although based on the previous average number of contacts reported by each infected person, it will be over 50,000.
But he scrambled to play down concerns that ministers have been making pivotal decisions on lockdown without accurate information, saying the outbreak was still in line with where its experts thought.
The shambolic situation sparked an immediate backlash against PHE – which is already set to be abolished and replaced by the government – with claims ‘everything it touches turns to sh**’.
But the body hit back by pointing the finger at the Test & Trace operation, run by Baroness Dido Harding. ‘We report the data when they send it. We didn’t get it,’ one official told Sky News.
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock held an emergency meeting with angry local mayors this lunchtime, before what promises to be a bruising appearance in the Commons this evening.
The problems are believed to have arisen when labs sent in their results using CSV files, which have no limits on size. But PHE then imported the results into Excel, where documents have a limit of just over a million lines.
The technical issue has now been resolved by splitting the Excel files into batches.
(With inputs from DailyMail)