[ENT] Test and Trace shambles as malfunctioning phones thwart efforts to find 40,000 missed off database

NHS coronavirus contact tracers struggled to reach tens of thousands of potentially infectious people yesterday after phone lines crashed following an IT malfunction.

As workers attempted to catch up on a backlog of calls to the 16,000 infectious people missed from the database – due to an error caused by an outdated version of Microsoft’s Excel on Friday – the communication system began to overload. 

Ring Central, the call system used by NHS Test and Trace, was said to have cut out mid-call and repeatedly lock workers out of their profiles due to the volume of calls being made by tracers.

One contact tracer told The Times that the department had been plagued with ‘horrendous IT problems’, which included being locked out of the system for ’20 to 30 minutes’ at a time. 

She told the publication: ‘Ring Central keeps collapsing because there are too many phone calls going on at once.’   

The phone line fiasco follows what has been an eventful week for IT malfunctions as an outdated version of Microsoft’s Excel saw a limit on the amount of data a spreadsheet could hold lead to 15,841 people being left off the Test and Trace ‘dashboard’.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock is seen in the House of Commons Chamber as he makes a statement on the coronavirus disease, in London, Britain, October 5

This meant that although the infected people were notified of their positive diagnosis and told to stay home, critically their details were not passed to contact tracers, leaving an estimated 40,000 people they had been in contact with unaware that they should have been isolating.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said the problem had been half-resolved by 9am on Monday, with 51 per cent of contacts of those 15,841 people having been notified.  

Mr Hancock revealed that he was told on Friday night that the cases had gone missing, and urgent contact tracing had started on Saturday morning.

He laid the blame squarely on ‘legacy’ software system at Public Health England, amid a bitter spat over who was responsible for the shambles. He said he had already ordered it to be replaced.

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. 

The technical issue has now been resolved by splitting the Excel files into batches.             

The daily totals rocketed over the weekend after the 'glitch' resulted in officials adding on thousands of cases that were missed last week. However, that merely shows the dates the cases were reported, rather than when the positive tests happened

The daily totals rocketed over the weekend after the ‘glitch’ resulted in officials adding on thousands of cases that were missed last week. However, that merely shows the dates the cases were reported, rather than when the positive tests happened

Following the blunder a frightening rise in coronavirus cases were recorded in Britain on Monday as the Department of Health announced 12,594 more positive tests – more than triple the 4,368 that were recorded a fortnight ago.

Last Monday’s data, which would usually be a good point of reference, is now unreliable because of a catastrophic counting error at Public Health England, meaning September 21 is the most recent Monday with an accurate number. 

Officials confirmed that today’s huge number was a clean count that did not include any cases left over from the weekend’s data blunder at Public Health England that saw 16,000 test results from the past week tacked onto Sunday night’s update.  

Instead, the more than 12,000 new infections emerged after the fog had cleared from the counting catastrophe – believed to have been caused by an Excel problem in outdated software at PHE – and marked one of the biggest one-day rises so far for Britain.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock faced the House of Commons Monday afternoon to explain the extraordinary episode, which he said ‘should never have happened’. He told MPs an investigation was being carried out into how thousands of cases had dropped out of the system.

But he did not offer an apology, and tried to soothe the situation by insisting the bungle had not warped judgements on local lockdowns or the government’s overall assessment of the outbreak.

Labour slammed the government for ‘failing on the basics’, while Tory MPs weighed in to warn public confidence is being ‘undermined’ and demand the military is brought in to help.  

In other developments Monday:

  • The UK reported another 12,594 cases, with the government insisting the data issues have been fixed. There were 19 more deaths recorded; 
  • Manchester now has the highest seven-day case rate in England, including the new infection data; 
  • Official figures updated with the missed cases show that, based on the date on which samples were taken rather than when the result was published, the UK’s daily rate has not been below 6,000 since September 21; 
  • The highest number of infected specimens collected in a single day was 11,404 on September 30; 
  • Ministers are putting the finishing touches to a new traffic-light system which could pave the way for harsher restrictions such as the closure of all pubs in a certain area;
  • Next year’s school exams would be delayed by three weeks as the crisis rolls on;
  • Rishi Sunak has said he is ‘frustrated’ by the 10pm pubs curfew and has ‘no regrets’ about Eat Out to Help Out – despite Mr Johnson admitting it might have fueled Covid cases; 
  • Trials of an air passenger testing regime are expected to begin within weeks in a victory for the Mail’s Get Britain Flying campaign;
  • Health minister Lord Bethell claimed Britain will look back at its Covid-19 response ‘like the Olympics’ and be ‘extremely proud’.

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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

A further 33 deaths – the figures of which were not impacted by the technical issue – were also confirmed today

Matt Hancock told the Commons that the extraordinary episode 'should never have happened' and an investigation was being carried out into how thousands of cases dropped out of the system

Matt Hancock told the Commons that the extraordinary episode ‘should never have happened’ and an investigation was being carried out into how thousands of cases dropped out of the system

The numbers of positive tests announced each day by the Department of Health have now become unreliable and difficult to compare because of the data issue which affects every daily count since September 25.

Comparing yesterday’s cases with last Monday’s would not be accurate because the announcement last week is now thought to have been missing positive cases. 

The most recent Monday for comparison, September 21 a fortnight ago, saw 4,368 cases confirmed. Yesterday’s number is a 188 per cent increase – almost three times as high. 

A ripple effect coming out of the counting fiasco means that a number of other statistical measures of the size of the UK’s outbreak – if they use Department of Health data – are inaccurate now.

The daily average has soared from just 6,273 cases on Friday, October 2 – the day the error was discovered – to 10,937 yesterday. But this drops to a more realistic 8,235 per day if Sunday’s mammoth count of 22,600 is cut out. It will take another week of ‘clean’ data for the seven-day average to smooth out.

One measure that remains accurate, however, is the Department of Health’s count of tests by the date on which they were taken.

Dated by specimen collection, 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.

PHE MEMO REVEALS LOST CASES 

The cases that were missed out of the Department of Health’s count because of Public Health England’s counting blunder have been revealed in a memo leaked to Sky News.

They show there were an average of 8,328 cases per day announced during the September 25 to October 2 period, with a high of 11,754 on October 2 and a low of 4,044 on September 28. The latter number is unchanged from the Department of Health’s own count.

The adjusted data suggest the current average number of daily cases – calculated using the last seven days – is approximately 10,600. This is a rise from the average of 6,100 that would have been recorded in the week up to last Monday. 

Sep-25

Sep-26

Sep-27

Sep-28

Sep-29

Sep-30

Oct-1

Oct-2

6,874

6,042

5,693

4,044

7,143

7,108

6,914

6,968

7,831

6,786

6,450

4,044

8,558

10,157

11,047

11,754

 

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 specimen data usually lags behind the daily count because it takes days and sometimes more than a week for people’s test results to be processed. Therefore, cases announced yesterday may have specimen dates that go back a week or more – a day’s number does not have any direct link to a specific date. 

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The cases that were missed out of the Department of Health’s count have been revealed in a Public Health England memo leaked to Sky News.

They show there were an average of 8,328 cases per day announced during the September 25 to October 2 period, with a high of 11,754 on October 2 and a low of 4,044 on September 28. The latter number is unchanged from the Department of Health’s own count.

The adjusted data suggest the current average number of daily cases – calculated using the last seven days – is approximately 10,600. This is a rise from the average of 6,100 that would have been recorded in the week up to last Monday.

Averages are a more accurate measure than daily cases because the one-day numbers tend to fluctuate – they are usually lower on Mondays and backlogs in labs when tests surge mean they can take variable amounts of time to trickle through. 

In a bruising Commons session, Mr Hancock said the PHE episode should ‘never have happened’ – but stopped short of giving an apology.

Instead he insisted it showed that the government could act ‘swiftly’. 

‘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,’ he said.

Mr Hancock said the Government’s assessment of the Covid-19 pandemic had ‘not substantially changed’ despite the radical change in the figures.

‘This morning the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) presented to me their updated analysis of the epidemic based on the new figures.

‘The chief medical officer (Chris Whitty) has analysed that our assessment of the disease and its impact has not substantially changed as a result of these data.

‘The JBC has confirmed that this has not impacted the basis on which decisions about local action were taken last week. Nevertheless, this is a serious issue that is being investigated fully.’

Mr Hancock boasted that half the positive cases have been contacted for tracing purposes.

He suggested the 16,000 had been contacted for a ‘second time’ – but the first time apparently referred to the notification that they had tested positive.  

He told the Commons: ‘Contact tracing of these cases began first thing Saturday. We brought in 6,500 hours of extra contact tracing over the weekend and I can report to the House as of 9am today [Monday] 51 per cent of the cases have now been contacted a second time for contract tracing purposes.

‘I want to reassure the House that outbreak control in care homes, schools and hospitals has not been directly affected because dealing with outbreaks in these settings does not primarily rely on this PHE system.’

But shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused the Government of ‘failing on the basics’ on testing.

He said: ‘The Prime Minister told this House on 20th May we would have a world-beating system in place by June, it’s now October. The system is neither competent nor improving, problems are getting worse.

‘The Government is failing on the basics, when will he finally fix this mess?’

Sir Bernard Jenkin was among the senior Tories laying into the Cabinet minister.

Manchester has highest Covid rate in England after new cases emerge

Manchester is the coronavirus capital of the UK after ‘missed’ new cases were added to its recent tally. 

The weekly rate of new Covid-19 infections has soared in dozens of areas of England following the addition of nearly 16,000 that had previously been unreported nationwide.

Manchester has the highest rate in England, with 2,740 cases recorded in the seven days to October 1 – the equivalent of 495.6 cases per 100,000 people, up from 223.2 in the previous week.

Liverpool has the second highest rate, up from 287.1 to 456.4, with 2,273 new cases.

Knowsley is in third place, up from 300.3 to 452.1, with 682 new cases.

Other areas recording sharp increases include Newcastle upon Tyne (up from 256.6 to 399.6, with 1,210 new cases); Nottingham (up from 52.0 to 283.9, with 945 new cases); Leeds (up from 138.8 to 274.5, with 2,177 new cases); and Sheffield (up from 91.8 to 233.1, with 1,363 new cases).

‘This is another incident that further undermines public confidence in the government’s delivery of the cornnavirus response,’ he said.

He insisted the government should repeat the ‘success’ of projects like the Nightingale Hospitals, which involved the military more closely.

Mr Hancock said the military already had limited involvement in the logistics for testing. 

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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. 

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 some documents have a limit of just 65,000 lines.

PHE officials said the outstanding cases were transferred to NHS Test and Trace ‘immediately’ after the issue was resolved and thanked contact tracers for their ‘additional efforts’ over the weekend to clear the backlog.

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

PHE said every single person who was tested initially had received their test result as normal, with all those testing positive told to self-isolate.

The technical issue meant daily totals reported on the Government’s coronavirus dashboard over the last week have been lower than the true number.

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

The Government’s dashboard said that, as of 9am on Sunday, there had been a further 22,961 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, taking the total number of cases in the UK to 502,978.

A note on the 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.’

Typically, the government has focused on the number of cases ‘reported’ daily.

However, that figure has now been warped by the historic cases being added to daily figures.

Leaked document reveals possible pub closures and ban on ALL social contact outside your household under proposed red, amber, green ‘traffic-light’ system 

Ministers are planning tough new ‘red alert’ lockdowns, with a leaked document revealing that all social contact outside homes could be banned under the most extreme part of a proposed ‘traffic-light-style’ system, according to reports.

The new three-tier system includes an Alert Level Three which will include tough new restrictions – which almost parallel the complete lockdown measures imposed in March.

These include closing all hospitality and leisure business and banning contact with anyone outside a person’s household in any setting.

Non-professional sports will also be stopped – though places of worship will still be allowed to stay open – which was not the case during the original coronavirus lockdown.

It comes as the UK recorded 23,000 new coronavirus infections on Sunday following a ‘technical glitch’ which meant thousands of cases were initially missed off the official data.

The tough new red measures, outlined in a leaked document seen by The Guardian, will only be imposed either nationally or in a specific area if the virus cannot be controlled by measures in Alert Level Two or if an area sees a ‘significant increase in transmission’.

Measures for ‘Alert Level Two’, amber in the traffic light system, include limiting social gatherings to people within a household and support bubble, while travel will be limited to essential purposes.

Alert Level Two will be triggered when there has been a rise in infections and local measures cannot control it.

See Also


Meanwhile Alert Level One, green, will include the measures that are already in place, such as the ‘rule of six’, the 10pm Covid curfew on hospitality businesses and the wearing of face masks in public places such as supermarkets and public transport.

According to the Guardian, A Whitehall source said the levels were intended to be ‘minimum standards’.

The source added that specific local circumstances in each area would also be taken into account.

A truer picture of the timeline emerges from the breakdown by specimen date.

That shows the confirmed cases by the date the sample was taken.

The figures have not been updated beyond October 1, apparently because tests and data are still being processed.

But they show that on that date there were 10,068 cases. On September 30 there were 11,404, which seems to have been the peak so far.

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Michael Brodie, interim chief executive at PHE, said the ‘technical issue’ was identified overnight on Friday October 2 in the data load process that transfers Covid-19 positive lab results into reporting dashboards.

The problem was caused by an Excel spreadsheet reaching its maximum file size, which stopped new names being added in an automated process.

The files have now been split into smaller multiple files to prevent the issue happening again.

Test and Trace and Public Health England joint medical adviser Susan Hopkins said: ‘All outstanding cases were immediately transferred to the contact tracing system by 1am on 3 October and a thorough public health risk assessment was undertaken to ensure outstanding cases were prioritised for contact tracing effectively.’

PHE said NHS Test and Trace have made sure that there are more than enough contact tracers working, and are working with local health protection teams to ensure they also have sufficient resources to be urgently able to contact all cases.

The number of call attempts is being increased from 10 to 15 over 96 hours.

However, in a round of interviews this morning, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey admitted that people are likely to have been infected as a consequence of the failures.

Asked if some could have become infected because of the error, she told Sky News: ‘There may well be, and I’ve been made aware that probably the majority of that (contact tracing) has happened in the latest element of the week, in the last couple of days.

‘So it’s important that we act quickly, and PHE (Public Health England) is acting quickly, to see whether or not people are required to self-isolate.

‘Because I do recognise that not quite everybody going through the regime will be identified by the Test and Trace regime to undertake that further self-isolation.’

On a visit to an energy firm in London on Monday, Boris Johnson – who refused to give a full explanation in an interview yesterday – said ‘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,’ he said.

‘The key thing, I would say, and it goes for everybody, is that if you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace then you must self-isolate, if you are told you have been in contact with somebody who has the virus.

‘There is support of £500 for doing so and of course a £10,000 fine if you don’t.’

Mr Johnson played down concerns that ministers have been taking crucial lockdown decisions without accurate information.

He said the updated figures meant that the prevalence of the virus was where experts had expected, insisting it will soon become clear if extra restrictions for some parts of the country were having the intended impact.

‘The incidence that we are seeing in the cases corresponds to pretty much where we thought we were,’ he said.

‘And, to be frank, I think that the slightly lower numbers that we’d seen, you know, didn’t really reflect where we thought the disease was likely to go, so I think these numbers are realistic.

‘The crucial thing is that in the next few days, week, we’ll see more clearly whether some of the restrictions that we put in – the extra enforcement of the rule of six, the extra enforcement of self-isolation, the rules on masks and so on – all the stuff that has come in, we’ll see whether that starts to work in driving down the virus.’

If people followed the guidance ‘I have no doubt that we will be able to get on top of it, as indeed we did earlier this year’.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘This is shambolic and people across the country will be understandably alarmed.

‘Matt Hancock should come to the House of Commons on Monday to 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.’ 

On Saturday, Professor Graham Medley, an attendee of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, tweeted: ‘Reporting delays play havoc with data streams and make them very difficult to analyse in real time.

‘If the delays change or vary by group then they can distort a lot. Wonder what these will do to the R estimates next week’.  

PM and Sunak put on united front after Chancellor swipes at ‘frustrating’ 10pm pubs curfew

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson put on a united front on Monday after the Chancellor branded the 10pm pubs curfew ‘frustrating’ and insisted he had ‘no regrets’ about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

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The two politicians were pictured together visiting an energy firm after Mr Sunak mounted a staunch defence of his subsidies on dining out – despite the PM admitting they might have contributed to the sharp rise in coronavirus cases. 

In an interview ahead of his keynote speech to Tory conference, Mr Sunak said the scheme had propped up two million jobs. 

Cementing his status as the leading Cabinet ‘hawk’ on the need to get the economy running again, he told The Sun: ‘I don’t think it’s wrong for people to want to strive for normality and I don’t think it’s wrong for the Government to want that for people.’ 

The intervention came after Mr Johnson came under fierce questioning over his handling of the crisis, with criticism of chaotic local lockdowns and shambolic testing. He admitted yesterday that he had dropped his ‘buoyant’ style during the pandemic because it was ‘inappropriate’.

By contrast, Mr Sunak has been praised for his tone talking about the impact of the disease, and the speed with which complicated bailouts including furlough were implemented. 

Mr Johnson tried to bridge the apparent gap between their messages yesterday by saying that he wanted the public to be ‘fearless but use common sense’. 

Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, said last night: ‘Clearly in the management of any epidemic you need good-quality data – without that data it is very difficult to respond. It is a real problem.’

Government adviser Professor Graham Medley, who sits on the Sage emergency panel, said: ‘Reporting delays play havoc with data streams and make them very difficult to analyse in real time. If the delays change or vary by group then they can distort a lot. I wonder what these will do to the R estimates next week?’

Dr Duncan Robertson, an expert in modelling and policy analytics at Loughborough University, added: ‘It is important to understand the reason for the delay.

‘If this is a reporting delay, that is bad enough, but if there have been delays in putting these cases into the NHS Test and Trace database, that can have serious implications for spreading the disease.’

Critics said if there was a real spike in cases in the coming days it could be missed, because it is impossible to tell which infections are new and which are simply the backlog filtering through.

Mr Johnson and his scientific advisers have repeatedly pointed to rising case numbers to justify tighter regulations.

Local restrictions are dependent on infection data.

A swing of a dozen cases in a week in a small town or borough is enough to be the difference between lockdown being imposed or businesses and families being allowed to continue as normal.

Public Health England interim chief executive Michael Brodie said last night: ‘A technical issue was identified overnight on Friday, October 2, in the data load process that transfers Covid-19 positive lab results into reporting dashboards.

‘After rapid investigation, we have identified that 15,841 cases between September 25 and October 2 were not included in the reported daily Covid-19 cases.

‘Every one of these cases received their Covid-19 test result as normal and all those who tested positive were advised to self-isolate.’

Earlier, in separate hospital data, 28 people were recorded as having died from coronavirus in Britain. 

The figure – ten more than last week – brings the UK’s total death toll during the pandemic to 42,345.  

Scotland has reported 758 new cases and no new deaths. Wales has 432 further cases but its death toll remains the same as no new fatalities were reported. 

All 28 deaths were recorded in England, with 25 in hospitals in the North East, Yorkshire and the Midlands.  

Patients were all aged between 69 and 94 years old and had underlying health conditions. 

The figure comes after a ‘failure in the counting system’ was blamed for coronavirus cases nearly doubling Sunday – as Boris Johnson hinted contact tracing might have been delayed.

Earlier, the PM dodged giving a fuller explanation as he was grilled on the extraordinary spike reported Sunday, with just under 13,000 new cases. 

Boris Johnson visited Octopus energy's HQ in London with Rishi on Monday amid swirling rumours of splits

Boris Johnson visited Octopus energy’s HQ in London with Rishi on Monday amid swirling rumours of splits

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