LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s testing and traceability program has been hampered by technical issues, overcrowded laboratories and poorly trained contact tracers. Now add to that a data entry error more likely to trip an amateur accountant than the world’s sixth-largest economy public health department.
Almost 16,000 people who tested positive for the coronavirus between September 25 and October 2 were not recorded in the daily number of reported cases in the country, producing an artificially low picture of the spread of the virus and delaying the efforts to trace those with whom the infection had come in contact.
The disclosure sparked a storm of criticism over the Johnson government, which had been on the defensive for its haphazard handling of the pandemic since March, when Mr Johnson hesitated for days before imposing a nationwide lockdown. More than 57,000 people have died from the virus in Britain, the highest number in Europe, and the country is now facing a second wave of infections.
“This incident should never have happened,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament on Monday, promising the government would investigate and modernize its outdated computer systems.
This has not appeased the opposition Labor Party, which has seized the latest glitch as proof of the government’s serial incompetence. “It’s not just a mess,” shadow secretary of health work Jonathan Ashworth said, pointing to Mr Hancock. “It’s so much worse than that.”
For a country ravaged by a pandemic, the computer error was not the only disconcerting information. Government officials have said less than half of Britons should expect to be vaccinated, even after a vaccine becomes widely available.
Britain’s goal is to vaccinate around 30 million people, or less than half of the population, the head of the government vaccine task force, Kate Bingham, told the Financial Times. The priority would be the most vulnerable people, workers in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as people over 50. Children and young people, considered to be less exposed to the disease, would not be vaccinated.
The data entry error, officials at Public Health England said, occurred because some of the Excel files containing the names of those who tested positive were too large to be transferred to a central computer system. When they were transferred, the system simply eliminated some of the names. Officials said they fixed the issue by splitting files and transferring smaller amounts of data.
The glitch did not affect when people were notified of their positive test results, officials said. The missing data also hasn’t stopped the government from imposing restrictions in hard-hit areas of the country. But it has delayed the contact tracing process, which depends on a rapid response to be effective in curbing the spread of the virus.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” said Devi Sridhar, director of the Global Health Governance program at the University of Edinburgh. “You are heading into winter and we already knew the cases were on the rise. This is really when you need your test and trace system to do its job. “
Instead, she said, virtually every part of the system has failed. Besides the data error, people were being sent to testing sites hundreds of miles from where they lived and testing was coming back too slowly from labs amid a huge backlog of untested samples.
Public compliance with the program has remained slow: in a survey of 32,000 people living in Britain, less than one in five people who reported symptoms of coronavirus said they had stayed at home. Of those alerted to the proximity of an infected person, only one in ten said they had complied with orders to self-isolate.
Britain reported 12,594 new cases on Monday – a number that did not include backdated cases, which had been added to Sunday’s figures.
Most of the new cases are in the north-west, in cities like Manchester, where there are large numbers of university students. Officials said adding the missing cases brought the spread rate back within the government’s forecast.
“To be blunt, I think the slightly lower numbers we saw didn’t really reflect where we thought the disease was likely to go, so I think those numbers are realistic,” Mr Johnson told reporters on Monday. . .
The Prime Minister’s moderate response belied the dangerous time facing Britain, with cases on the rise and the country still unable to get an accurate gauge on where and how fast the virus is spreading.
Getting started with local outbreaks depends on case detection and monitoring down to office building and neighborhood level. But almost since England’s contact tracing program was unveiled in May, it has been hampered by issues accessing test data, making it in some cases impossible for local authorities to track the virus. .
For weeks, a network of private testing sites processed tens of thousands of daily tests, and the government did not share detailed results with local authorities. Only test results from public hospitals were quickly shared.
Public health officials said they were left to catch the wind of the news outbreaks. Local council officials have pleaded for location-specific test results, only for the central government to deny them on the grounds that they had not signed the appropriate data protection agreements.
These delays particularly plagued local officials in the north of England, where infection rates remained higher than in London when the nationwide lockdown was lifted, putting them at higher risk before the implementation of ‘an efficient data sharing system.
In Leicester, where the central government imposed a second lockdown in late June, officials said the government refused to test the data on the grounds that “it had not been cleaned”. Government officials said data processing had not yet been automated at this point, causing delays, which local officials said led to an increase in the number of cases.
Some local officials bristled on Monday that they were denied access to test results due to data security policies when the contact tracing program actually stored test results in Excel spreadsheets.
The fragile infrastructure behind England’s contact tracing program saw marked relief in mid-August, when a weekly government report found that a ‘temporary infrastructure problem’ had delayed entry people with positive test results in the contact tracing system.
New Scientist magazine later reported that an internet outage in southern England created problems with the digital infrastructure of the contact tracing program, causing delays of up to a week for tracers can call the contacts of thousands of newly infected patients.