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UK hit by new virus test failing, finds 16,000 extra cases

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at BBC Broadcasting House to appear on the Andrew Marr show, in London, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Johnson has defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but warned that the country faces a bumpy winter ahead. Britain has Europes highest coronavirus death toll, at more than 42,000, and Johnsons Conservative government is facing criticism from all sides. Opponents say tougher social restrictions are needed to suppress a second pandemic wave. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

LONDON – The British government has launched an investigation into how nearly 16,000 new coronavirus infections went unreported as a result of a technical glitch, a failing that could have given fresh impetus to an outbreak that critics say could easily get out of control.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told lawmakers Monday that the problem related to the “automated transfer of files." The problem is widely thought to be connected to the file size limitations on Excel spreadsheets used in the test-and-trace program.

“This is a serious issue which is being investigated fully,” Hancock said. “Now it is critical we work together to put it right and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Hancock's appearance at the House of Commons came after the weekend disclosure that 15,841 virus cases weren’t tabulated from Sept. 25 to Oct. 2. Though those testing positive had been told of their status, their contacts — potentially around 50,000 people — weren't traced, a failing that could have allowed the virus to flourish.

He said 51% of those testing positive were contacted again and that their contacts were reached immediately after that.

Despite the addition of so many new cases, he said the government's chief medical officer “has not substantially changed" his opinion about the epidemic's path in the U.K., which like other countries in Europe is witnessing a second spike of the virus.

Jonathan Ashworth, Hancock’s counterpart in the main opposition Labour Party, said the failing showed how “shambolic” the Conservative government’s plan to fight the pandemic was and that the latest problem afflicting the country’s testing regime was “putting lives at risk.”

Lawmakers from all parties have criticized Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government for a shortage of testing capacity that's meant some people have been asked to travel hundreds of miles for a test, and delays in notifying people of their test results.