By Monday morning, only half of the 16,000 who tested positive had gotten a contact tracing call. The other half “should be contacted as soon as possible,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was excoriated in the House of Commons by lawmakers.
The accounting error — blamed on operators entering data in an Excel spreadsheet program — was another serious stumble for the British government, at a crucial moment, when it is daily trying to decide where to tighten regional restrictions to slow a second wave of the virus.
After the error was spotted and the lost cases accounted for, the government’s report of new daily infections nearly doubled — from 12,872 on Saturday to 22,961 on Sunday — sparking renewed angst among officials in London and England’s north, where most of the new cases were centered.
Michael Brodie, the interim head of Public Health England, said the issue was identified late Friday in the computer process that communicates positive results from labs to the country’s reporting dashboards. Some data files containing positive results had exceeded the maximum file size, he said, according to the BBC.
“We fully understand the concern this may cause,” Brodie added, “and further robust measures have been put in place as a result.”
While health authorities said the glitch had not affected the pandemic response at the local level, 10 Downing Street announced an investigation and politicians in the opposition described the episode as “shambolic.”
“This isn’t just a shambles. It’s so much worse than this and it gives me no comfort to say it, but it’s putting lives at risk,” Labour Party lawmaker Jonathan Ashworth told Parliament.
Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson told the Guardian newspaper the missing data was the latest in a “pandemic of incompetence from the government.”
Anderson said, “There are mistakes and there are really serious mistakes. This is a highly significant mistake that tells me the system is not fit for purpose.”
Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, told BBC Radio, “I think the thing that surprised me was the size of it — almost 16,000 results — going missing over the course of a week is quite alarming, I think.”
Hunter said for contact tracing to effective, people who were in proximity with those who test positive need to be reached quickly.
“And the reason is that we know now that this infection is most infectious at around the time people develop symptoms — so very early on in the illness,” he said. “It really needs to be done within a matter of a day or so if you're going to actually have any effect.”
The error delivered another significant blow to the public perceptions of Britain’s stuttering contact tracing efforts, which critics say are already too far slow to properly track the spread of the outbreak.
Armus reported from Washington.