Microsoft Excel to Blame for Almost 16,000 Unreported Covid-19 Cases in England.

Limitations in Microsoft Excel may have resulted in up to 16,000 Covid-19 case results being unreported in England. Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has said this ‘should never have happened.’

The announcement came after a spike in reported coronavirus cases between September 25th and October 2nd. It’s believed that files with positive results sent by the National Health’s test and trace software exceeded the maximum amount of data the 1980’s spreadsheet format could handle.

Such was the extent of the blunder that it has been estimated that almost 48,000 people who have had contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 have not been traced. This has put lives at risk.

How Did This Happen?

According to various news outlets, including the BBC, the error was caused by developers saving test results in Excel file format (.XLS), an outdated file format. Each .XLS spreadsheet can only accommodate 65,000 rows. This means that when test results requiring many more rows were sent to the NHS, much data was lost.

The problem would have never happened if the Government had saved test data in a .XLSX Excel file format. Why? .XLXS can accommodate more than 1 million rows, whereas .XLS files can only accommodate 65,000 rows. Because of the blunder, only 1,400 cases were recorded.

Was the Error Resolved?

Upon noticed the huge data discrepancy, Public Health England took appropriate measures to retrieve the lost data by splitting the files into smaller sizes which fit the 65,000 row limitations of the .XLS Excel file format.

However, despite this many people have questioned that in such trying times when data insights are critical to keeping everyone safe why Public Health England were not using the most the most up to data software to track and tract Covid-19 cases. Some even suggesting that the Government had put public health at risk.

Laboratories Manually Input Covid-19 Data

Surely, given how critical data is to control the spread of the virus, the Government should be using the foremost extraction practices to ensure that critical data cannot be lost? Sadly, this hasn’t been the case.

When questioned on why this happened, the UK Government said that the rapid development of the testing programme has meant that much of the data input is done manually, with individual labs sending Public Health England spreadsheets with their results. Although the system has improved, much of the data is still calculated and communicated using what we all can agree is vastly outdated processes. Some labs even writing results on a piece of paper and communicating them over the telephone.

The UK Government does automate Covid-19 results into reporting dashboards for contact tracing, however if the Excel software version used does not support the volume of data required, all dashboard data from which publicised statistics are drawn from is bound to be compromised.

The Subsequent Fallout

Public Health England discovered overnight on Friday 1st October and that the missed cases had been forwarded on to tracers by 01:00 BST on Saturday. However, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, told MPs that the incident had not been resolved, with only 51% of people who had positive test results reaching contact tracers.

Yet, despite the blunder, Matt Hancock did go on to state that the blunder did ‘not substantially change’ the Government’s assessment of the epidemic and did ‘not impact the basis on which decisions about local action were taken.’

However, what’s clear is that our reliance on digital innovation will be integral to controlling the spread of the virus. With a vaccine not looking likely until the mid-2021, despite the University of Oxford already being at an advanced stage of testing, data insights and having a confident track and trace app is vital.

The Track and Trace App

The launch of a contract tracing app in England and Wales at the start of October was one such example of how digital innovation can be immensely helpful in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Available from Apple’s App Store and Google Play, the app was downloaded 14 million times in its first week.

Capable of detecting when a fellow app user is nearby through Bluetooth, users can share their coronavirus test results via the app. If someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 is detected by the app to be nearby, anyone who has the app will receive an alert and be encouraged to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they don’t show any symptoms.

Upon its launch in May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared the track and trace app to be ‘world-beating’ however, over the last several months the app has never been far from controversy.

The biggest question is how the app gets the data on people and proximity. An international coalition of more than 300 academics believe the GPS tracking software used by the app is not accurate enough to tell users when they have been close enough to someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. This could lead to another enforced national lockdown because of an overwhelming – and inaccurate – number of false positive cases prompted by the app.

The other criticism levelled against the track and trace app is one that never seems to be far from the headlines – privacy. Experts have warned that GPS tracking is dangerously invasive to our personal privacy.

For the authorities to be able to tell where someone is at any one time is tremendously invasive. Even if people were comfortable with having their movements monitored, the potential for data to be retained and abused is significant – and something that has raised alarm bells.

Utilising Technological Innovation in the Right Way

Fortunately, we are in a position where we can use our technological innovation to make everyone’s lives safer and better as we continue to battle against the coronavirus. Beyond building support bubbles on social media or using video conferencing platforms to work from home, there are a wealth of innovations that have and will be crucial to securing our long-term health and prosperity.

Using AI to detect the spread of the virus has been achieved thanks to Bluedot, a big data analytics company based in Toronto who correctly predicted the virus’ infection path from Wuhan to Tokyo using news reports, airline data and reports of animal disease outbreaks.

In the US, a man who contracted coronavirus was treated by a robot by communicating through a screen. Although not able to perform complex medical procedures, the robot was equipped with a stethoscope, helping doctors to take the man’s vitals whilst minimising contact exposure.

So, it’s clear that technological innovation has and will continue to be an important weapon to have in our arsenal as we fight the coronavirus. However, how we choose to optimise that technology to stop the spread of Covid-19, gather important data to keep people safe, and record important statistics needs to be better thought out.

Do this and we’ll be able to beat the coronavirus much quicker than even the most optimistic tsars have predicted!

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