The improper use of Microsoft Excel is the reason why England has not reported nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases.
It seems that the fault lies in Public Health England (PHE), not an external contractor.
The problem was caused by the agency’s way of putting together records produced by paid commercial companies to analyze swab tests from the public to find out who was infected with the virus.
They archive the results in a text-based list (called a CSV file) without any obstacles.
PHE has established an automated process to collect this data into an Excel template so that it can then be uploaded to the central system and made available to the NHS testing and tracking team and other government computer panels.
The problem is that the PHE developers themselves chose an old file format to perform this operation, namely XLS.
As a result, each template can only process about 65,000 rows of data, instead of the one million rows that Excel can actually handle.
Moreover, since each test result creates multiple rows of data, in practice this means that each template is limited to 1,400 cases.
When the total number is reached, other cases are discarded.
To some extent, Excel’s XLS file format dates back to 1987. It was replaced by XLSX in 2007. If you use it, it will handle 16 times the number of cases.
At the very least, this will prevent the error from occurring until the test level is significantly higher than the current level.
But one expert suggested that even high school computer science students will know that there are better options.
Professor Jon Crowcroft of the University of Cambridge said: “Excel has always been designed for people who handle large amounts of data so that their small businesses can see what it looks like.”
“Then, when you need to do something more serious, you can build something viable; you can do many other things.
“But you won’t use XLS. No one will start with that.”
Health Minister Matt Hancock said in a speech in the House of Commons that the problem was caused by the “legacy system” used by the Ministry of Public Health and that it had been decided to replace the system two months ago.
However, this particular problem was probably not found. Otherwise, PHE will realize that the vulnerability will take effect before the update is complete.
Hancock faces the challenge of putting other related data process diagrams in the public domain in order to find other hidden flaws in government digital equipment.
However, even though the minister said he would see what is possible, he added: “The challenge of the maximum file size error is that it does not necessarily appear in such flow charts.”
PHE firmly believes that test results will not be lost due to failure until last week.
In defense, the agency will point out that it found most cases within a day or two after the records were leaked through its network.
But Labor’s shadow health minister Jonathan Ashworth (Jonathan Ashworth) said that because the contact tracing process has been delayed, life is still at risk.
He told the House of Commons: “Thousands of people [very helpful] are not aware that they have been exposed to Covid, and this virus may spread this deadly virus when the number of hospitalizations increases.”
“This is not only a disaster. What’s worse.”
To solve this problem, PHE now divides the test result data into smaller batches to create a large number of Excel templates. That should ensure that no one can achieve the goal.
But experts admit that today’s clumsy system must be replaced with more advanced things (excluding Excel) as soon as possible.