COMPUTER SAYS OH NO: Health Secretary Matt Hancock will come to the Commons this afternoon to make a statement on last night’s astonishing admission by Public Health England that a “technical issue” meant nearly 16,000 positive coronavirus cases weren’t registered on its data system between September 25 and October 2. Playbook is told Hancock will be up in the House around 3.30 p.m.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The problem occurred when test result data from labs wasn’t successfully transferred onto the actual dashboards that report the numbers. PHE says some files containing positive test results — unbelievably — exceeded the maximum file size that can be loaded onto their central system, and so they were missed. It’s now splitting the large files into two so it doesn’t happen again. Seriously.
HOW THAT LOOKS: Most of the missed cases happened during the last three days of the mess-up. On September 30, the official figure given was 7,108 positive results, but another 3,049 were missing. On October 1, they originally reported 6,914 cases, but 4,133 more weren’t counted. On October 2, the original figure given was 6,968, though another 4,786 cases were missed.
IN OTHER WORDS: Brief hopes within Downing Street and the department of health last week that the “rule of six” might be working and that cases were starting to flatten have been royally dashed. But the 10,000-plus jump on the previous day’s figures isn’t a reflection of the true rate of new infections either.
WHY THIS MATTERS: It isn’t just a stats error. The real problem is that the 16,000 missing positive cases were not contact traced, meaning a dangerous potential for carriers to have spread the virus further as NHS Test and Trace races to go through the backlog. Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth says: “This is just shambolic.” Hancock is in for a kicking in parliament later.
WORLD-BEATING LATEST: A blame game is already brewing between Tory peer Dido Harding’s Test and Trace and PHE. Some in Whitehall are pointing the finger straight at their favorite PHE punching bag, with one official telling Playbook: “This is another sad example that PHE is not fit for purpose and needs genuine root and branch reform. If we are honest, everything they have touched in the last nine months has turned to complete sh*t.” But PHE says it’s Test and Trace’s fault. A PHE official tells Sky’s Rowland Manthorpe: “We report the data when they send it. We didn’t get it.” There will be a lot more on this to come today — all under the subtext of PHE’s imminent abolition, to be replaced by a new public health body run by … Dido Harding.