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А spreadsheet blunder may have omitted 16,000 new COVID-19 cases in the UK

The Excel error could have been prevented with a simple update.

coronavirus covid-19
Image: Tumisu / Pixabay

Scientists firmly believe that data can save lives, but it can also cost lives if it isn’t managed properly. A recent blunder by the Public Health England (PHE) agency may regrettably prove that data can cost lives. In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, data has played an immense role in creating health protocols, determining patterns, and stopping the massive spread. 

However, the recent blunder seems to be a step backward in this regard as almost 16,000 new coronavirus cases somehow didn’t find their way into the national tracking database system. The National tracking database is of immense significance because it is used by almost all UK government agencies, which have some role in managing the virus.

So, what happened?

Well, employees working for the Public Health England (PHE) agency first brought together logs from commercial companies. Each of those companies analyzed tests and discover who had contracted the coronavirus. 

Once the logs were received, they went into CSV files. The PHE had an automatic process that allowed them to pull the data into Microsoft Excel sheets. Those same Excel sheets then went into the national central system. From there, other government agencies could access the data. 

The issue here was that PHE’s developers were still using an outdated XLS format. Unlike the new XLSX format that can handle more than one million rows, the old XLS can hold only 65,000 rows. 

So, since each COVID-19 test required several rows, each template could receive only 14,000 new cases. Once the number of available rows reached its limit, the system stopped receiving the data from the new patients. 

To further explain the matter, the XLS file format was first introduced in 1987. In 2007 the XLS format was superseded by the improved XLSX file format. If the developers working for the Public Health England (PHE) agency would’ve thought of this earlier, this blunder would have never occurred. 

The damage

Due to this blunder, PHE started to collect data results in small batches. That will lead to a much larger number of files. However, it will ensure that templates won’t hit their cap.  That said, according to members of the House of Commons, this is way worse than just a simple blunder as it has endangered the tracking process. They also added that this comes at the worst possible time as hospital admissions are again on the rise.

What do you think? Surprised that an Excel issue like this was overlooked? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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