Much remains to be revealed about the precise circumstances in which 15,841 positive Covid-19 test results were temporarily lost. The technical explanation being reported on Monday – that an Excel file maximum was reached, leading to excess data being dropped between a lab and Public Health England – is not the whole story. As well as what caused the error, there is much to learn about its effects. This includes the locations of around 48,000 close contacts of the infected people, who were not contacted by the test-and-trace system because it did not have their details. On Monday the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told the House of Commons that 49% of those tested had still not been reached by contact tracers.
How many people will be infected by the virus who might otherwise have escaped it, and how ill they will become as a result, remains to be seen. As the backlog is cleared, some people will surely be angry to learn that they were not warned of the risk to themselves, and others, in a timely way. If the affected areas turn out to be among those already facing the highest rates of illness and most severe pandemic-linked economic problems, as is widely expected, then council, school and business leaders will be justifiably furious.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is right to demand that hospital and university labs should now be given a bigger role in testing, and that contact tracing should be overseen by local public-health teams. The centralised, outsourced system set up by ministers has not performed well. Labour’s call for the government to be more open with the public, with regard to the criteria for local restrictions, chimes with arguments in favour of transparency made by this newspaper. But important as such proposals are, and worrying as the shortcomings of test and trace continue to be, it is worth taking a step back to reflect on the bigger picture.
Geographical variations make an overview difficult. Unlike in France, Spain and Italy, the first wave of Covid-19 infections was spread relatively evenly across the UK. That situation has now altered. While the rate of infection remains low in the south of England, parts of the north-west and north-east have been hit hard by a combination of rising case numbers and the social and economic harm caused by local rules, including an instruction not to socialise with members of other households indoors. With a government support package for Hartlepool, Merseyside, Middlesbrough and Warrington limited to £7m across all four areas, local leaders are rightly alarmed. Meanwhile, as ministers scramble to repair the damage caused by this latest mistake, the target of 500,000 tests a day by the end of the month looks out of reach. (The current maximum is 310,000.)
Jumping to conclusions about the underlying reasons for this data collection failure would be unwise. But human and technical errors have contexts. It is not possible to say conclusively that the decision to abolish Public Health England in the middle of the pandemic and put the Conservative peer, Dido Harding, in charge of a replacement body, the National Institute for Health Protection, was a factor in last week’s mix-up. But it is reasonable to suggest that it might have been.
Covid-19 has placed enormous demands on public services and authorities of all kinds, as well as on people and businesses. Yet rather than focusing efforts on boosting capacity within existing organisations, such as councils and NHS hospital labs, ministers have systematically favoured new arrangements with private-sector partners. With positive tests now running at 12,000 a day, up from 1,000-1,500 a month ago, and the former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, arguing along with Labour for an enlarged role for local authorities, it is essential that ministers are held to account for their decisions. For a government that boasts of a special interest in data science, last week’s lapse is all the more grave.