Dido Harding – the Tory peer in charge of the new Test and Trace scheme – has been urged to either resign or be sacked over coronavirus testing failures.
The government is under fresh scrutiny after 16,000 Covid-19 cases went unreported and led to a delay in efforts to trace contacts of people who tested positive for the virus.
Public Health England (PHE) said a technical issue resulted in 15,841 cases between September 25 and October 2 being left out of the reported daily coronavirus cases.
The problem was caused by an Excel spreadsheet reaching its maximum file size, which stopped new names being added in an automated process.
The files have now been split into smaller multiple files to prevent the issue happening again.
Therese Coffey earlier was unable to say how many people were or were not contacted over the unreported cases as a result.
The news follows an interview on The Andrew Marr Show where the prime minister acknowledged the NHS Test and Trace service, run by Harding, is not perfect.
He conceded: “It is not perfect, I’m not going to claim it’s perfect. Am I frustrated with it? Yes, of course I’m frustrated with it.”
But he stressed he does not blame NHS Test and Trace, adding: “I take full responsibility for the service, by international comparators it is really very, very good indeed.”
Pressure, however, is on Baroness Harding to show leadership on the matter and either resign or be sacked, especially given she is lined up to head up the agency replacing Public Health England.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: “The public health consequences of this raise so many questions.
Dido Harding latest:
◾️ People having to drive 700 miles for tests
◾️ Tests unavailable in vast parts of the country
◾️ Tracers sitting idle
◾️ Numbers traced way too low
◾️ Test results in 24 hours plummeting
◾️ 16000 tests lost
Promote her to head up everything
— David Schneider (@davidschneider) October 5, 2020
“How many contacts of these *missing* 16,000 have been unknowingly spreading the virus?
“When will the government deliver a functional test & trace system? Why is Dido Harding still in her job?”
Twitter users were in agreement.
Dr Duncan Robertson, lecturer in management sciences and analytics at Loughborough University and fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, said the error was “an absolute scandal”.
He tweeted: “These individuals will not have had their contacts identified and those contacts may have become infectious and may have been spreading the virus.”
John Spiers commented: “Using a spreadsheet for a database application is not a “technical glitch”… it’s weapons grade incompetence. They tried to use Excel to administer Covid testing results. Dido Harding should (again) be sacked for this.”
Steve Jones wrote: “16,000 cases going missing and not showing up in the data, or being passed to contact tracing, is a not-remotely-unexpected consequence of having wildly unqualified people like Dido Harding in charge of complex projects.”
Another said: “So not only did Dido Harding preside over the loss of tens of thousands of talk talk customers data being breached. Has she now also presided over the Serco test and trace failure and the loss of tens of thousands Covid infections data going missing? Constantly appalling.”
Freya Sykes posted: “Ahhh Dido Harding, the bumbling Baroness who cost TalkTalk £60m after losing customers data. Now as head of the NHS we see T&T [test and trace] figures had gone missing too. What is wrong with this country that we uplift failed individuals like this? I’m sick of it. This cosy club”
Eddy Stone added: “At least when Dido Harding lost all the data at Talk Talk you could move to another crap supplier. Here, there is no other supplier. People just die.”
It was previously reported just 38.1% of people tested for Covid-19 in England in the week ending September 23 at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit – a so-called “in-person” test – received their result within the 24-hour target set by the prime minister.
Health secretary Matt Hancock is expected to make a statement on the issue on Monday.