Excel spreadsheet blamed for UK's COVID-19 test and trace woes

Stressed businesswoman in the office.

An Excel spreadsheet was behind IT glitch that caused thousands of positive COVID-19 tests to be omitted from the UK’s official records, according to press reports.

The issue that left almost 16,000 positive results going unreported has been blamed on the way Public Health England tracks results from mainly private labs that have been hired to add extra testing capacity.

While established “Pillar 1” labs in hospitals around the country feed straight into a central PHE database, the mainly private “Pillar 2” labs feed results to the central database with data stored in a CSV file created using an Excel spreadsheet.

But Excel files created using the older version of the spreadsheet are limited to 65,536 rows, Sky News noted, which is why so many positive results were not included in the official figures.

The results were being missed off the bottom of the spreadsheet, meaning that while all other indicators suggested the number of cases in the UK were rising rapidly, the numbers displayed on the government’s COVID-19 dashboard seemed to be staying constant or even falling.

According to the reports the problem has now been solved by saving the data in several CSV different files.

Despite the temporary fix, the incident raises serious issues about how the government has been managing the outbreak.

Sky noted that the budget for the test and trace system is around £12 billion, almost more than any other government investment programme in recent history.

But the issue could have been solved with a £100 upgrade for Excel, or a more serious investment in the IT system at the heart of the test and trace system.

The delays to publishing thousands of results mean that although people were eventually notified if they tested positive, it is also possible that people were unnecessarily exposed to the virus.

The test and trace results also help to inform whether the government imposes local lockdowns to try and stop the virus from spreading.

Without a vaccine, good data is the only way the government can stop the virus from spreading and it’s less than reassuring that the system fell over because of such a simple oversight.