Computer problems are a recurring problem for Britain’s health services. When the NHS was brought to its knees by computer hackers three years ago, it emerged that the vast majority of hospital computers were running on an obsolete version of Windows.
The NHS IT system was meant to have been replaced a decade earlier but the project was abandoned after a long overrun and a £13billion bill.
But misplacing 16,000 Covid cases due to the simplest of errors is a new low, throwing the pandemic response into chaos.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night blamed the fiasco on the antiquated ‘legacy computer system’ used by Public Health England
Accurate data are essential to track infections, monitor the spread of the virus and identify hotspots.
Infection rates are also used by ministers to make decisions on introducing and easing restrictions.
Even more worryingly, the glitch has sent the NHS test-and-trace system into chaos. Only half the 16,000 missed cases have so far been contacted.
This means tens of thousands of their contacts – all potentially infectious – have still not been identified, putting countless others at risk.
So how did this happen? Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night blamed the antiquated ‘legacy computer system’ used by Public Health England (PHE).
That is clearly an issue. He claimed a replacement was ordered in July.
The daily totals rocketed over the weekend after the ‘glitch’ resulted in officials adding on thousands of cases that were missed last week. However, that merely shows the dates the cases were reported, rather than when the positive tests happened
But the fiasco also exposes the gaping cracks left when the test and trace programme was thrown together at rapid speed earlier this year.
The system is run by Dido Harding, who, incidentally, was boss of TalkTalk when it suffered a cyber-attack that revealed the details of four million customers.
The vast testing programme over which Baroness Harding presides is operated by a mish-mash of private companies, civil servants, health quangos and the NHS.
The new problem occurred when data from the outsourced Lighthouse laboratories that process Covid tests were transferred to PHE.
The Microsoft Excel documents that contain this data are combined by PHE officials into a master spreadsheet, which then updates the Government’s Covid dashboard.
The data are also sent on to the private companies – such as Serco – which run the contact tracing element of the programme.
In any properly integrated system, this transfer of data would be automatic. But because so many different organisations are involved in test and trace, this is impossible because the different systems do not talk to each other.
The seven big Lighthouse labs, for example, are run by different organisations – including Randox, AstraZeneca and PerkinElmer – and further tests are processed by NHS hospital labs and PHE.
The system is run by Dido Harding, who, incidentally, was boss of TalkTalk when it suffered a cyber-attack that revealed the details of four million customers
So instead of seamlessly transferring data, spreadsheets are sent between each element of the system, and each has to be manually checked and sent on.
The error took place when the master spreadsheet co-ordinated by PHE grew so large it stopped updating. It took eight days before anyone noticed. PHE – which eventually discovered the problem – was selected to take the blame for the crisis.
Although it was in charge of the spreadsheet in question, the problem is symptomatic of the wider fragility of the test-and-trace system.
But PHE makes a convenient scapegoat. It is due to be disbanded in April, having previously taken the blame for earlier mistakes in the Government’s pandemic response.
As testing continues around the UK, including at Temple Green Park in Leeds, only half of the 16,000 missed cases have so far been contacted
Duncan Selbie, the former chief executive of PHE, has already been shuffled to a job in the Department of Health, and new interim CEO Michael Brodie only recently joined PHE from the NHS Business Services Authority, so has not been around long enough to take the blame.
Meanwhile, the name of Baroness Harding – who takes overall responsibility for the test and trace system – was notably missing from any of the Government’s statements yesterday and over the weekend.
This, of course, may be because she is already being lined up to head the new National Institute for Health Protection, which will replace PHE next year.
If her new organisation is to avoid the mistakes of the past, she must fix the visible cracks in this vast public health edifice.