LONDON — The British government has launched an investigation into how nearly 16,000 new coronavirus infections went unreported as a result of a technical glitch, a failing that could have given fresh impetus to an outbreak that critics say is already out of control.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told lawmakers in the House of Commons that 51% of those previously missed cases have now been contacted by contact tracers. Hancock’s statement came after the weekend disclosure that 15,841 virus cases weren’t tabulated from Sept. 25 to Oct. 2.
Those testing positive were told of their status, but their contacts were not traced, Public Health England said, a failing that could have allowed the virus to flourish.
“This is a serious issues which is being investigated fully,” Hancock said. “Now it is critical we work together to put it right and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The “technical issue” is thought to have stemmed from file limitations on the Excel spreadsheets that the government used for its test-and-trace program.
An opposition Labour lawmaker said the failing showed how “shambolic” the Conservative government’s plan to fight the pandemic was.
The unreported cases were added to the government’s daily new infections total over the weekend, boosting Saturday’s number to 12,872 cases and Sunday’s to 22,961. That compared to an average of 7,000 new cases a day the four days before.
The number of new cases reported Monday fell to 12,594, but given the adjustments related to the missing cases, it was impossible to figure out a trend.
For the test-and-trace program to work well, contacts should be notified as soon as possible. So authorities’ failure to inform people potentially exposed to the virus could lead to many more positive cases and the need for the government to impose further unwanted restrictions on everyday life.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s spokesman on health issues, slammed the government for its latest failing on testing “at one of the most crucial points in the pandemic.”
As a result, he said around 48,000 contacts of infected people may have been “blissfully unaware they’ve been exposed to COVID, potentially spreading this deadly virus at a time when hospital admissions are increasing and we are in the second wave.”
“This isn’t just a shambles — it’s so much worse than this — and it gives me no comfort to say this, but it’s putting lives at risk,” Ashworth added.
The reporting error is just the latest problem with Britain’s test-and-trace system, which is seen as crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the need for further limits on social interaction. Lawmakers from all parties have previously criticized Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government for a shortage of testing capacity and delays in notifying people of their test results.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, called the glitch “very disappointing.”
“For the test, track and trace system to have a real impact on reducing transmission of COVID-19, it is essential that test results are communicated rapidly,” he said.
Like other countries in Europe, the U.K. has seen rising coronavirus infections over the past few weeks, which has prompted the government to announce a series of restrictions, both nationally and locally, to keep a lid on infections. The new rules limit the number of people allowed to gather together and put a curfew on pubs.
The U.K. has Europe’s highest virus-related death toll at more than 42,400. The government’s chief scientific advisers warned two weeks ago that if more restrictions were not taken, the country could end up with 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October, leading to hundreds of daily deaths a month later.
The confusion over the daily testing numbers only adds to the uncertainty over whether the restrictions are working in suppressing the virus.