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.”