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6 October 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 10:00am

The missing data debacle exposes a fundamental problem in the government’s testing strategy

The desire for central control means a mistake such as this is visited upon the whole country.

By Ailbhe Rea

The search for the roughly 50,000 people who should be in self-isolation, but aren’t, continues after 15,841 positive diagnoses of Covid-19 were lost in the English testing system.

This remains the most important news item at the moment, however certain politicians (see below) would like to move the story on. Our most important line of defence against both the health dangers and the economic impact of this virus has been severely hampered by a computing error.

A recap: the technical error was caused by some Microsoft Excel data files exceeding the maximum size after they were sent from testing laboratories to Public Health England (PHE), meaning that some positive cases were left off official data, and were therefore not included in official government statistics, nor passed on to test and trace. It means that the people who tested positive themselves have been self-isolating, but their contacts haven’t. With cases dating back to before 25 September, it is arguably too late to find the tens of thousands of people who still haven’t been contacted (as of this morning, that was still half of them).

“It gives us a virus spread problem that we have no control over,” an anonymous official says starkly, in a Manchester Evening News report on the thousands of people who are being affected by this error in Manchester, which live data shows to have the highest rate of new infections in the country.

The government can point to this incident as further evidence of the need to scrap PHE and replace it with a new body, which is already underway. Even the BBC has bluntly reported that “PHE was to blame, rather than a third-party contractor” for this error. It was PHE’s use of an outdated version of Excel that caused the glitch, in a seemingly perfect metaphor for Matt Hancock’s argument that PHE has proved itself outdated and ill-equipped for the task of responding quickly to 21st-century pandemics.

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This may be the case, but, as our political editor Stephen Bush has already argued, it doesn’t make the prospect of reorganising our public health infrastructure in the middle of a pandemic any less foolhardy.

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But the incident also points to a deeper problem in our pandemic response – one that this reorganisation is likely to exacerbate, rather than resolve. One of the recurring criticisms of our test and trace programme is that it was established in isolation from our pre-existing local and regional public health infrastructure. We already have an “oven-ready” localised public health system in England, broken down into regions, with regional directors, and then into local areas and GPs, the natural point of contact that most people have with the health service. Rather than embedding a new testing programme into these pre-existing structures, Test and Trace was established as a new, nation-wide and entirely centralised programme, with limited efforts to embed some of it into local structures retrospectively. What this means is that when there’s a computer error like this, the entire country is affected.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has demonstrated a rigid, and seemingly ideological, instinct to centralise control. This incident tells of the dangers of that approach.