Why the missing 15,000 COVID-19 cases will affect everyone

We still don’t know why more than 15,000 cases were effectively lost in the English testing system.

The prime minister called it a “computer problem”. Elsewhere it’s been referred to as a “glitch”.

What we do know is that on 24 September something went wrong with the computer system connecting the Lighthouse Laboratories to Public Health England (PHE). Normally, new cases are passed by Test and Trace to PHE, which then add them to the daily totals. But, starting on 24 September, some results didn’t appear.

I’ve seen a copy of a note sent by PHE to directors of public health in the northwest, which contains a table showing how the lost cases built up. On the first day, 957 weren’t filed. On 2 October, the day the problem was discovered, 4,786 cases weren’t added to the system.

That’s almost 5,000 positive cases that weren’t included in the daily national total and – most importantly – weren’t passed to Test and Trace.

The note contains some important comments on the practical impact of this news. First, it makes clear that this issue does not affect anyone’s results. Everyone who tested positive was informed and asked to self-isolate “in the normal way”.

The note also claims that the problem with the data did not change any local lockdowns, saying it had “no impact on the decisions” that were made at the all-important GOLD meeting which rules on local restrictions. It adds: “If anything, it shows that the virus is in an endemic phase and rising.”

Whether that is accurate remains to be seen. What is undeniable: the impact of this issue on Test and Trace. None of these positive cases have been contact traced, so Test and Trace is now dealing with a substantial backlog. One contact tracer says they greeted the news with “dread”.

An impact for Test and Trace is actually an impact for everyone. More than 15,000 people have gone untraced at a moment when the virus is spreading fast – and the vast majority of those will now be too late to catch in time. England’s most important defence against the virus was bypassed by an internal error.

We now know that the coronavirus figures have been drastically underestimated for over a week. The effect of this issue may yet last longer.

I’m told a “serious incident” was declared in Test and Trace yesterday. With so much at stake, serious is definitely the word.

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