More than a technical glitch, the NHS Test and Trace failure shows how little this government care about protecting lives, argues Adriana Cooley
The latest in the seemingly un-ending scandal coming from the Tory mishandling of the pandemic is how the ‘NHS’ Test and Trace system failed to report almost 16,000 positive test results to contact tracers. As a result, up to 50,000 people who came into contact with those that tested positive, were not contacted.
When this story hit the headlines this morning, as a Data Engineer at a major UK tech company, I had a natural curiosity to understand exactly what and how this has happened. A major part of my role is the building systems and automated processes that handle the transfer of data from external parties and the reporting of that data to internal or external partner organisations and users of our data. The more I read about this story, the more I was struck with dis-belief. The fact that Public Health England ‘developers’ had a largely manual system using Excel, and there were no checks in place to validate the data, is beyond farcical.
It appears that the PHE ‘system’ used an old version of Excel which has a 65,536 row limit, so when the incoming test data from the labs - in the form of text files - exceeded this amount, the data was deleted.
Excel should never be used for data processing, let alone in the processing and storage of data upon which peoples’ lives depend. Highly confidential personal data should never be stored in an Excel spreadsheet. There is no access control (anyone can change anything) and no audit trail (no record of the changes being made). Excel is primarily a data analysis tool typically used for the analysis of small amounts of pre-aggregated data.
What this tells me is that the government aren't taking the pandemic seriously. Test and trace has been a central pillar of the response in countries that have been successful in limiting the spread of the virus. Yet months after the pandemic began and tens of millions of pounds later, we are still relying on Excel sheets. This is the system that Boris Johnson called just yesterday "really very, very good".
It's clear that the government doesn't have a coherent strategy and they're going from failure to failure because they're driven by protecting profits not lives and they're constantly maneuvering over what is or isn't politically defensible to them. That's why they're committed to giving contracts and appointments to their mates - in this case, Dido Harding who infamously presided over the TalkTalk data breach, and has now failed over Test and Trace and yet will soon head up the institution replacing Public Health England.
We should absolutely be calling for Harding to resign, but we should also be clear that the buck stops with Boris Johnson. In his interview with Marr on Sunday he admitted that he "take(s) full responsiblity for the service", and he must take full responsibility for the entire mishandling of the pandemic.
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