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More than 50,000 potentially infectious people may have been missed by contact tracers and not told to self-isolate because of the data blunder that meant nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases went unreported in England.
Public Health England (PHE) admitted it was to blame for the IT error that meant 15,841 positive test results were left off the official daily figures between 25 September and 2 October.
It is thought that the majority of the 15,841 patients were non-complex cases, meaning they were tested in community settings rather than in hospitals, care homes or other institutions.
In the most recent week for which figures are available, each non-complex case reported an average of three close contacts. This equates to at least 47,000 people.
However, a minority of the 15,841 missing positive cases were complex cases – those that include hospitals, care homes, prisons and homeless shelters – who on average had seven close contacts each in the most recent week. That takes the likely number of close contacts missed to more than 50,000.
Boris Johnson said health officials were on Monday trying to reach the close contacts of those who had tested positive amid concerns that they may have been unknowingly spreading the disease for days.
“What happened here was that some of the data got truncated and it was lost,” he said on Monday. “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.
It is understood that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was holding an emergency call with England’s nine regional mayors at midday on Monday to answer concerns over the missed cases.
Hancock is expected to state that PHE is to blame in a Commons statement later on Monday. One PHE official admitted that it was behind the error, saying: “It’s an IT issue involving data being transferred from one system onto another one. It’s entirely PHE’s fault. It’s our bit of the process.
“It was down to a combination of human error and IT, that is a human using IT. It’s fundamentally an IT error but there is a bit of human error involved in this too.”
The mistake arose during the data processing PHE undertakes to ensure that people who have tested positive for coronavirus are only counted once, even if they have had two or more tests, as some people have.
Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said on Monday she was unaware how many close contacts were missed due to the error. “I’m afraid I just don’t have that information,” she told BBC1’s Breakfast programme.
Labour has called the error, blamed on computing problems, “shambolic”.
The failure meant 22,961 cases were included in Sunday’s figures, after 12,872 on Saturday.
The error also meant the information was not passed on to data dashboards used for contact tracing, PHE said.
Coffey said the contact tracing would be “happening straight away” and accepted it was a particular problem, given the importance of tracking contacts as quickly as possible.
“I recognise what you’re saying, but the error has been picked up, and it is being dealt with,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s anything we can change about history. We can only change how we make sure that these sorts of errors do not happen again in the future.”
The data blunder could have significant implications for the lockdown measures imposed on more than 1.5 million people in Merseyside only three days ago. Two of the region’s political leaders said the missing figures mean the restrictions were imposed on “a false premise” and must now be reviewed.
Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool city region of 1.5 million people, said he wanted the government urgently to explain how many of the nearly 16,000 missed cases were in Merseyside. He said it undermined the evidence upon which last week’s restrictions were based and that he feared public confidence would be significantly undermined if those measures now had to be tightened.
Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, said the error was the latest in a “pandemic of incompetence from the government”. He added: “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.”
Anderson said Liverpool’s latest figures show that it has one of the highest infection rates in England, with 322 cases per 100,000 people. However he added: “I don’t know whether that figure is higher now [because of the missed cases]. I guess it would be because a proportion of them would be within Merseyside and that’s a real concern and a real worry. We need that information to be provided to us quite urgently.”
PHE, an executive agency of Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care, is being abolished at the end of March after being blamed by ministers for a number of key failings, especially early in the pandemic, including its inability to expand testing and admission that it may have wrongly counted some of the people previously deemed to have died of Covid-19.
Experts warned that the glitch may increase Britain’s already fast-rising rate of infections and put extra pressure on a testing system in England that is already buckling under the strain of demand.
“All those individuals with positive results that were not entered into the system have contacts who remained an infection risk to others over this period and so we can expect that they will have already contributed extra infections which we shall see over the coming week or so,” said Rowland Kao, a professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at Edinburgh university.
“While it appears they are now being contacted as a matter of priority, this additional strain on a system already stretched to its limit implies that further delays are likely to occur for other cases where contact tracing is needed. These knock-on effects may have a substantial influence on the generation of new cases, over a period even longer than that.”
Source: The Guardian
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