The UK failed to add nearly 16,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus to its national track and trace system due to an unspecified “technical issue.” According to a report in The Daily Mail, the mistake occurred when a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet used to track confirmed cases of the virus reached its maximum file size and failed to update.
The government agency that helps oversee the UK’s pandemic response, Public Health England (PHE), said some 15,841 cases had been left out of national totals because of the error but did not specify what caused the so-called glitch.
“Initial findings indicate that the issue was caused by the fact that some files containing positive test results exceeded their maximum file size, and they then failed to load into the central system because they couldn’t get through,” a spokesperson for PHE told BBC News journalist Leo Kelion. The spokesperson did not say whether Excel was involved.
The revelation caps a weekend of soaring coronavirus cases for the UK, which many have speculated could lead to a second national lockdown for the country: 12,782 new cases were announced on Saturday followed by 22,961 on Sunday.
The 15,841 “missing” cases made public today were originally recorded between September 25th and October 2nd. All those who tested positive for COVID-19 were notified by the UK’s health authorities, but the failure to upload these cases to the national database meant anyone who came into contact with these individuals was not informed. It’s an error that may have helped spread the virus further through the country as individuals exposed to the virus continued to act as normal.
Although the nature of the error is not confirmed, some have speculated it may have been caused by storing the data in Excel in columns, not rows. Each Excel spreadsheet only holds 16,384 columns (compared to 1,048,576 rows), meaning confirmed cases stored in this way could have hit a file size cap relatively easily.
When I first heard that cases were missing I thought “can’t be an Excel problem, the rows run out at 1,048,576 which is bigger than even total cases”.
I never thought they’d have a case per COLUMN. Unbelievable. And yes: Excel columns end at 16,384 aka “XFD”. https://t.co/To9b4qIuzD
— Matt Parker (@standupmaths) October 5, 2020
However, this specific explanation is not even mentioned in The Daily Mail’s original report, which only references an unspecified error involving Excel. It’s very possible that some other error involving file size limits somewhere in the UK’s data pipeline is to blame.
At least, though, sources seem to agree on the solution to the problem. The overly large files have now simply been split into several different batches. PHE says the problem is resolved, and it passed the details of the backlog of confirmed cases onto the UK’s contact tracers as of 1PM local time on Saturday.