Why was outdated version of Excel being used to track Covid cases? asks council chief

David Ellesmere, leader of the Ipswich Borough Council. Picture: SU ANDERSON

David Ellesmere, leader of the Ipswich Borough Council. Picture: SU ANDERSON - Credit: Su Anderson

As a software developer I find it hard to comprehend the level of incompetence revealed by the Government’s loss of 16,000 coronavirus cases, writes Ipswich Borough Council Leader David Ellesmere.

The problem was caused by using an Excel spreadsheet that could not cope with the numbers of cases.

Public Health England were using an old version of Excel which became obsolete in 2007. That this was still being used in 2020 highlights a chronic lack of investment in public health over the last decade.

There was no error checking. Results over a certain limit were just ignored – a fundamental software engineering error. When importing data, software developers should follow the maxim “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Errors should be expected, checked for and, if they can’t be automatically fixed, flagged up. It should not have taken a week for this problem to be spotted.

The biggest error was in the use of Excel itself. It is a very useful tool for performing complex calculations on relatively small datasets. It is emphatically not suitable for running a system dealing with national-scale levels of data. The developers of this project should have used a database. They were using the wrong tool for the job.

It is concerning that the “fix” was to split the large Excel spreadsheet into multiple smaller files. This is just a quick and dirty hack. It doesn’t fix the real problem and will almost certainly lead to more problems – most likely around data integrity – in future.

None of this is rocket science stuff for software developers. There are kids in high school who could put together a better system than this Government has.

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We were promised a “world beating” Test and Trace system. The Government is spending £12 billion on it. Yet the IT running the show is held together with bits of string and sticky tape.

The result is that more people will have become infected at a time when infections are already rocketing in parts of the country. The measures now needed to bring infections under control will consequently be harsher and do more economic damage than would otherwise have been the case.

This Government’s serial incompetence will have consequences for us all.