16K COVID-19 Cases Go Missing In UK Due To Government's Use Of Excel CSVs For Tracking
from the excel? dept
Yes, yes, you’re sick of hearing about COVID-19. Me too. But the dominant force of 2020 continues to provide news, often times with a technology focus. This mismanaged pandemic has already given us an explosion of esports, students gaming remote learning systems, and enough dystopia to make George Orwell vomit in his grave.
But to really get your anger bubbles gurgling, you need turn only to the myriad of ways far too many governments have taken a moment that requires real leadership and forethought, and pissed it all down their legs. America appears to be trying to lead the charge in this, with our shining city on the hill mostly being illuminated by headlights of cars carrying sick passengers looking to get tested for this disease. Still, we’re not alone when it comes to sheer asshatery. The UK recently managed to lose thousands of COVID-19 cases… because it was tracking them in Excel CSVs.
The issue was caused by the way the agency brought together logs produced by commercial firms paid to analyse swab tests of the public, to discover who has the virus. They filed their results in the form of text-based lists – known as CSV files – without issue.
PHE had set up an automatic process to pull this data together into Excel templates so that it could then be uploaded to a central system and made available to the NHS Test and Trace team, as well as other government computer dashboards.
Public Health England (PHE) decided to put all of this information into a file using the XLS format. XLS was first introduced in 1987 and was replaced by the XLSX format over a decade ago. Putting aside the use of Excel to monitor positive COVID-19 cases in a major industrialized nation for just a moment, just the use of an antiquated format managed to lose PHE over sixteen thousand positive cases.
How? Well, XLS has restrictions as to how many rows of data it can record.
As a consequence, each template could handle only about 65,000 rows of data rather than the one million-plus rows that Excel is actually capable of. And since each test result created several rows of data, in practice it meant that each template was limited to about 1,400 cases.
When that total was reached, further cases were simply left off.
Which means the people that had COVID-19 weren’t tracked for contact tracing. The government and its people didn’t have a complete picture as to either the total case count for the disease, nor its positivity rate. In other words, the agency in charge of national health failed to keep the nation informed as to its risk exposure because it didn’t know how to properly use a common office application that it repurposed to record COVID-19 data.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said lives had still been put at risk because the contact-tracing process had been delayed.
“Thousands of people [were] blissfully unaware they’ve been exposed to Covid, potentially spreading this deadly virus at a time when hospital admissions are increasing,” he told the House of Commons. “This isn’t just a shambles. It’s so much worse.”
The UK’s Health Secretary told the House of Commons that PHE had decided to replace the use of Excel, or what he called a “legacy system”, two months ago. But apparently PHE hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
And still hasn’t, actually. In fact, PHE’s plan to temporarily fix all of this is… more Excel!
To handle the problem, PHE is now breaking down the test result data into smaller batches to create a larger number of Excel templates. That should ensure none hit their cap.
But insiders acknowledge that the current clunky system needs to be replaced by something more advanced that excludes Excel, as soon as possible.
When you hear complaints that governments are not taking this pandemic seriously, this is what they mean.