British government on the defensive over COVID-19 testing data gaps

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought on Monday to play down a failure in England’s COVID-19 testing data system that delayed 15,841 results, saying the much higher updated figures were more in line with forecasts of the outbreak’s spread.

But the glitch is likely to cast further doubt over Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic: His Conservative government’s response has been cast by political opponents as slow, poorly organized and confusing.

On Sunday, authorities reported a jump in daily COVID-19 cases to a record 22,961, after saying a technical issue had meant that thousands of test results had not been transferred into computer systems on time, including for contact tracers.

“The incidence that we’re seeing in the cases really sort of corresponds to pretty much where we thought we were,” Johnson said, speaking to reporters.

“To be frank, I think that the slightly lower numbers that we’d seen didn’t really reflect where we thought that the disease was likely to go, so I think these numbers are realistic,” said Johnson, who was hospitalized with a serious case of COVID-19 in the spring.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament the technical problem had not yet been resolved. “This incident should never have happened,” he said.

Johnson, who earlier this year promised a “world-beating” test-and-trace system, has more recently said there have been missteps but that the government has been confronted with the biggest health crisis since the 1918 influenza outbreak.

The Labour Party’s health critic blasted the government in a statement, saying the missed data led to people not self-isolating.

“This is not just a shambles, it’s so much worse than that,” said MP Jonathan Ashworth.

“And it gives me no comfort to say it — it’s putting lives at risk, and he should apologize,” Ashworth added, referring to Hancock.

Hospitalization level not seen since June

Data published on Monday showed there were 12,594 new positive COVID-19 test results — suggesting the upward trend of cases seen before the discovery of the technical snag continues unabated.

The number of COVID-19 patients in English hospitals also rose to the highest level since late June, at 2,593.

“Now more than ever with winter ahead, we must all remain vigilant and get this virus under control,” Hancock said.

People wearing face masks walk in the city centre in Middleborough, Britain on Oct. 2. (Lee Smith/Reuters)

Public Health England said all people whose tests were the subject of the glitch had been given their results in a timely fashion, and that those who had tested positive had been told to self-isolate.

Asked about a vaccine, Johnson said it felt like an AstraZeneca project must be on the verge of one.

“We are working very, very hard to get one,” Johnson said. “We are not there yet.

“I went to see the scientists at Oxford at the Jenner Institute, the AstraZeneca team — incredible what they’re doing,” he said. “You know, you really feel they must be on the verge of it, but it’s got to be properly tested.”

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