UK Covid-19 testing error leads to 1,300 false positives

Chemicals blamed for latest blunder in Britain's Test and Trace system

A pedestrian wearing a protective face covering to combat the spread of the coronavirus, walks past the Christmas tree in Covent Garden in central London on November 27, 2020, as life under a second lockdown continues in England.  England will return to a regional tiered system when the national stay-at-home order ends on December 2, and 23.3 million residents in the worst-hit areas are set to enter the "very high" alert level. / AFP / Tolga Akmen

More than 1,300 people in Britain were wrongly told they were infected with coronavirus after a laboratory error at the government's NHS Test and Trace system, the Department of Health and Social Care said on Saturday.

"NHS Test and Trace has contacted 1,311 individuals who were incorrectly told that the result of Covid-19 tests, taken between November 19 and November 23, were positive. An issue with a batch of testing chemicals meant their test results were void," a department spokesman said.

"Swift action was taken to notify those affected and they have been asked to take another test, and to continue to self-isolate if they have symptoms."

The laboratory error that led to the problem was an "isolated incident" and was being investigated, the statement said.

The British government has announced an extra £7 billion ($9.31bn) for its Covid-19 testing and contact tracing system as part of an expanded programme of mass testing.

The NHS Test and Trace system has been heavily criticised after a series of high-profile failures since its launch earlier this year, and ministers concede it has not performed as well as they had hoped.

In September, nearly 16,000 positive case records were lost from the system for several days – causing a delay in contact tracing. The government blamed a "legacy" file system that cut off records after about 65,000 rows of data.

Reuters analysis and interviews with contact tracers have shown issues with the system, and that when looking at non-household contacts, the proportion that is successfully traced is lower.

The United Kingdom has had about 1.6 million coronavirus cases and more than 57,500 deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove warned on Saturday that hospitals in England risked being overwhelmed if lawmakers do not support the government's new plan for restrictions.

More than 20 million people across large swathes of England will be forced to live under the toughest category of Covid-19 restrictions when a national lockdown ends on December 2. Lawmakers are due to vote on the restrictions the day before.

But a growing number of lawmakers in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party have voiced opposition to the tiered restrictions plan.

Some argue that the areas they represent have low infection rates but the toughest rules, while others say the new measures will cause unnecessary economic harm to local businesses.

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