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Ministers have been accused of “putting lives at risk” through data failures which led to nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases going unreported in England, but Matt Hancock insisted the problem had been addressed.
Updating the Commons after it emerged that data transfer errors between laboratories and Public Health England (PHE) meant 15,841 positive results were left off daily figures between 25 September and 2 October, the health secretary said just over half those missed were now having their contacts traced.
Blaming a “failure in automated transfer for files”, Hancock said that no care homes, NHS sites or schools had been affected. But responding for Labour, the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said up to 48,000 contacts had been missed over a period of days.
“Thousands of people blissfully unaware they have been exposed to Covid, potentially spreading this deadly virus at a time when hospital admissions are increasing and we’re in the second wave,” Ashworth said.
“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, and he should apologise when he responds.”
Hancock also faced some scepticism from his own benches over his argument that the data issue had been fixed and would not be repeated. Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary who now chairs the Commons health committee, said the incident had shown an “underlying problem” of laboratories being overwhelmed by demand.
Hunt told MPs the testing system should be fully revamped to shift testing for NHS and care staff to hospital and university labs, and warned Hancock against complacency.
“Can I urge him to think about whether sometimes it’s tempting to think that just by dealing with this latest problem, you’re going to solve the whole problem,” Hunt said. “This is a situation, ahead of winter, ahead of the second wave, where we do need to think about whether these structures are right for what we have to deal with.”
Bernard Jenkin, the Tory MP who chairs the influential liaison committee, also called for a rethink, suggesting that the military could assist with the process.
“This is another incident which further undermines public confidence in the delivery of the government’s Covid response. It is another example of where logistics and planning have let us down,” he said.
Hancock said efforts to catch up with contact tracing began first thing on Saturday, with an extra 6,500 hours of personnel time used. By Monday morning, he said, 51% of cases had been contacted for a second time – all those with positive tests were told about them – so contacts could be located.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, had assessed the updated data, Hancock said, and concluded that no assessments of the spread of Covid had substantially changed. No local lockdowns would need to be reassessed, he added.
Hancock said: “This incident should never have happened. The team have acted swiftly to minimise its impact, and now it is critical that we work together to put this right, and to make sure that it never happens again.”
Referring to the idea that the error might have been cause by the use of Microsoft Excel files to transfer data, Ashworth had asked Hancock why a complex system costing £12bn had used an off-the-peg programme.
The health secretary said a new contract had been signed in August, and work was under way to replace the system.
But Ashworth said the failure epitomised problems with test and trace: “The prime minister told this house on 20 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?”
Boris Johnson said earlier that health officials were 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.”
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.
The failure meant 22,961 Covid cases were reported 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.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ministers accused of putting lives at risk with Covid data error | Health policy