Coronavirus: UK investigates data error that left 16,000 cases unreported

Error means contacts went untraced for days and case trajectory is far higher than thought

The British government has launched an investigation into a data error that saw almost 16,000 coronavirus cases go unreported so that their contacts remained untraced for days. Health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that just over half of those whose cases were missed were now having their contacts traced.

An error transferring data from testing laboratories to Public Health England (PHE) meant that 15,841 positive cases were omitted from the official figures between September 25th and October 2nd. All those who tested positive were informed of their results but the data error meant that the system did not start trying to trace their contacts until last Saturday night.

“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,” Mr Hancock told the House of Commons.

He said that, although the error meant that last week's reported daily figures were lower than they should have been, the discrepancy would have had no impact on decisions about local lockdowns. But Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the failure had left up to 48,000 contacts unaware for days that they could be in danger.


“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,” he said.

"In recent weeks we've had people told to travel hundreds of miles for a test, we've had hundreds of children out of school unable to get a test. We've had tracers sitting idle watching Netflix. We've had care home tests taking days to be processed. Yesterday we had a health minister saying this could be a moment of national pride like the Olympics. We've had a prime minister in a complete muddle over the rules and now, at one of the most crucial points in this pandemic, we learn that almost 16,000 positive cases when unreported for a week."

Succession of fiascos

The data error is the latest in a succession of fiascos involving Britain's test and trace system and a number of MPs on Monday called for the system to be changed so that more responsibility is decentralised. Former Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt said university and hospital laboratories could take over testing for National Health Service and care home staff.

“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,” Mr Hunt said.

Chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak warned on Monday of hard choices ahead as the government would be unable to protect every job and would have to determine how to pay for the cost of supporting businesses and employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have a sacred responsibility to future generations to leave the public finances strong, and through careful management of our economy, this Conservative government will always balance the books. If instead we argue there is no limit on what we can spend, that we can simply borrow our way out of any hole, what is the point in us? I have never pretended there is some easy cost-free answer. Hard choices are everywhere,” he told the Conservatives’ virtual annual conference.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times