A glitch in the government’s £37bn test-and-trace system may have helped fuel the spread of a highly-transmissible Covid variant in one of the UK’s worst-hit towns, it has emerged.

The software error meant that more than 700 infected people and their close contacts were not promptly passed on to local health teams, allowing them to potentially spread the disease further.

The number of missing cases was highest in Blackburn with Darwen, where about 300 people are believed to have been lost in the system during a faulty IT upgrade. The Lancashire town is battling one of the UK’s largest outbreaks of the fast-spreading variant first identified in India. Labour has described the news as “jaw-dropping”.

It is understand that health teams on the ground in Blackburn with Darwen are still scrambling to trace hundreds who fell through the cracks of the national system. Officials from neighbouring councils have been drafted in to help clear the backlog as infections in the town continue to rise.

Two local health officials in the areas affected said it meant that potentially infected people were able to continue circulating in the community without being told to self-isolate. One said a recent surge in their area had been worsened by the “systemic and operational failures” of the government.

It comes as data from Public Health England (PHE) shows there have now been 3,424 confirmed cases of the variant, up from 1,313 cases confirmed last Thursday, a rise of 160% in a week.

This is likely to be an underestimate given the time lag between samples being collected and the presence of the variant within positive samples being determined. PHE says the majority of samples relating to the new total date from around 10-14 days ago.

Downing Street confirmed there had been what it called “a short delay” in tracking down the contacts of people who tested positive for coronavirus for several weeks, but insisted there was no evidence this had hastened the spread of the B.1.617.2 variant of coronavirus, which is believed to be more transmissible.

Eight local authorities were affected overall, the others being Blackpool, York, Southend-on-Sea, Thurrock, Bristol, North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset.

One local government source said it took at least two weeks for the problem to be resolved and resulted in some areas getting a “huge download” of hundreds of cases earlier this week, by which time the 10-day isolation period had ended for most of those people.

It is understood a “coding error” in the test-and-trace system meant positive cases were not automatically transferred to the Contact Tracing Advisory Service (CTAS), which local authorities use to follow up infected people.

Some councils said the mishap had not affected them badly, with Southend saying none of the people whose contacts were not immediately traced had a variant of concern.

But Keith Aspden, the Lib Dem leader of York council, said that while the city still had below-average Covid infection rates, the delay, and consequent hold-ups to tracing contacts, had been “deeply frustrating”.

He said: “These failures in government-run centralised systems have been evident throughout the pandemic. The outsourcing of contact tracing in England should be halted with funding instead diverted to local public health teams.”

The Department of Health said everyone who had tested positive for Covid in the eight areas was contacted as normal and told to isolate for 10 days. The issue with informing councils was down to errors in an IT system upgrade, which is now working properly, it added.

But Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said there appeared to have been “a failure right at the top”. He said: “It is jaw dropping – billions have been spent, but the basics still aren’t working and local areas are battling an increase in the virus.”

Meanwhile on Thursday, Boris Johnson unveiled a plan for what is billed as a “global pandemic radar”, an international effort to both identify new variants of coronavirus and track emerging diseases, allowing the development of tests, vaccines and treatments.

Announced ahead of the UK hosting a meeting of leaders from the G7 group of nations next month, Johnson held talks on the plan with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization.

The system, with a network of surveillance hubs, is due to start operating before the end of the year.

The aim is to create “a system of disease surveillance fit for the 21st century, with real-time data sharing and rapid genomic sequencing and response”, Johnson said, adding: The world must never be caught unaware again by a virus spreading among us unchecked.”

Timeline

How England’s Covid lockdown is being lifted

Show

Step 1, part 1

In effect from 8 March, all pupils and college students returned fully. Care home residents could receive one regular, named visitor. 

Step 1, part 2

In effect from 29 March, outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens.
Outdoor sport for children and adults allowed.
The official stay at home order ended, but people encouraged to stay local.
People still asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

Step 2

In effect from 12 April, non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and some public buildings such as libraries and commercial art galleries  reopened. Most outdoor venues can reopen, including pubs and restaurants, but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopen are settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules still apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing.
Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open, but again people can only go alone or with their own household.
Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities is also allowed, but only for one household.
Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

Step 3

From 17 May people can be able to meet indoors in groups of up to six or as two households, or outdoors in groups of up to 30 people. People can also choose whether to socially distance with close family and friends, meaning that they can sit close together and hug. In care homes, residents can have up to five named visitors and be entitled to make low risk visits out of the home.

People can meet in private homes, or in pubs, bars and restaurants, which will all be able to reopen indoors. Weddings, receptions and other life events can take place with up to 30 people. The cap on numbers attending funerals will depend on the size of the venue.

Most forms of indoor entertainment where social distancing is possible will also be able to resume, including cinemas, museums and children’s play areas. Theatres, concert halls, conference centres and sports stadia will have capacity limits in place.

Organised adult sport and exercise classes can resume indoors and saunas and steam rooms will reopen. Hotels, hostels and B&Bs in the UK will allow overnight stays in groups of up to six people or two households.

People will also be able to travel to a small number of countries on the green list and will not have to quarantine on return.

Pupils will no longer be expected to wear face coverings in classrooms or in communal areas in secondary schools and colleges as a result of decreasing infection rates. Twice weekly home testing will remain in place. School trips with overnight stays will also now be possible.

Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, the government had planned that all legal limits would be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, would reopen. Large events would be able take place. However, the prime minister has said that the rise of the B.1.617.2 variant of coronavirus first detected in India may threaten this date, and health secretary Matt Hancock said it will not be confirmed before 14 June whether the government plans to stick to the timetable.

Peter Walker Political correspondent and Rachel Hall

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