The government is unaware of how many potentially infectious contacts of coronavirus patients were not traced after it was revealed that nearly 16,000 Covid cases went unreported in England, a minister has said.
“I’m afraid I just don’t have that information,” Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, told BBC1’s Breakfast programme.
Labour has called the error, blamed on computing problems, “shambolic”. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, was expected to make a statement to the Commons later on Monday.
The failure resulted in 15,841 positive test results being left out of Public Health England’s daily figures between 25 September and 2 October, meaning 22,961 cases were published on Sunday, after 12,872 on Saturday.
The error also meant the information was not passed on to data dashboards used for contact tracing, PHE said.
Coffey said it was not yet known how many people as a result had not been contacted to be told they should self-isolate after coming into close contact with one of the unreported positive cases.
“But I am assured that PHE have found the error, will be putting that through the computer system, and the testing, tracing and contacting as appropriate will be happening straightaway.”
Coffey said she accepted it was a particular problem, given the importance of tracking contacts as quickly as possible.
“I recognise what you’re saying, but the error has been picked up, and it is being dealt with,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s anything we can change about history. We can only change how we make sure that these sorts of errors do not happen again in the future.”
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, called for Hancock to appear before the Commons. Hancock had been due to make a speech to the Conservatives’ virtual conference on Monday afternoon.
“This is shambolic and people across the country will be understandably alarmed,” Ashworth said.
“Matt Hancock should come to the House of Commons on Monday to explain what on earth has happened, what impact it has had on our ability to contain this virus and what he plans to do to fix test and trace.”
Of the unpublished cases, more than 75% (11,968) related to cases that should have been reported between 30 September and 2 October, test and trace and PHE’s joint medical adviser, Susan Hopkins, said on Sunday.
She reiterated that the reporting issues did not affect people receiving their test results. Hopkins also insisted the delay had not affected the decision-making process for local restrictions.
It comes after the number of UK lab-confirmed cases soared to nearly 13,000 on Saturday after cases missed out due to the “technical issue” started to be included in the figures.
Coffey said the issue had been fixed. “It’s important to stress that people who have the tests get their results. I’m conscious that PHE had this glitch, but they identified it. So it is being rectified, and so we can get those contacts potentially into the system and contacted, as decided by the test and trace regime.”
She added: “I’m conscious that we need to try and get the test-and- trace regime contacting as many people as possible, to get them to go into self-isolation. But, ultimately, the people who had the actual virus have definitely been contacted. Hopefully that will be reassuring for them, if nobody else.”
Scientists have called for more transparency over the issue. “Openness is essential for public trust,” said Dr Duncan Robertson, of Loughborough University, an expert in modelling and policy analytics. “If this is a reporting delay, that’s bad enough, but if there have been delays in putting these cases into the NHS test and trace database, that can have serious implications for spreading the disease.”
The delay had held up the publication of positive test results from community testing – pillar two of the government’s testing programme. It is still unclear what caused the fault.
Robertson said: “It would be useful to know which labs have been affected by this technical issue. Is it one particular Lighthouse lab or an independent lab, for example, those being set up at universities or companies?”
The information would help scientists to work out whether a particular group was affected, such as older people, or those in a certain region.
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