Missing COVID-19 tests glitch 'caused by large Excel file'

Published 7th October 2020

As you may have seen in the news last week Public Health England has been left embarrassed after an Excel spreadsheet error caused the results of 16,000 Covid-19 tests to be lost.

Anyone who has ever had to fiddle about with data will have spent time with their head in an Excel spreadsheet.   It is one of the world’s most popular business tools and a favourite application among Finance professionals and Accountants, as it is widely used within local and group finance.  When it is used well Excel is an amazingly clever bit of software, but it also comes with a host of limitations that mean it is often implicated in costly, or even dangerous errors.  In the case of the missing Covid -19 tests a data blunder could literally mean life or death.

Security experts said they were “dumbfounded” at the use of Excel for a job as important as Covid data gathering. Richard Bingley, founder of Covent Garden-based Global Cyber Academy, said: “Excel is useful for small tasks but not for handling large quantities of metadata.”

So, the lesson to learn here is to make sure that you are using the right tools for the job.  "Excel was always meant for people mucking around with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like," commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge.  "And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works”.