• Data on tens of thousands of tests not accessible to local NHS and councils
  • “No data is being reported until further notice”
  • Senior NHS source says national reporting has also stopped

Data on the outcome of tens of thousands of tests carried out outside the NHS is ‘disappearing into a data black hole’, making it harder for local organisations to respond to the spread of coronavirus in their area.

An internal NHS update email seen by HSJ, which is meant to tell local organisations how many residents and staff in their areas have tested positive, states that full information is “increasingly becoming unavailable” and cannot be reported “until further notice”.

Instead the reporting is based only on NHS lab tests, which make up less than half of total tests now being carried out, a proportion which is still shrinking further.

Local officials and clinicians told HSJ they need the information for responding to the levels of outbreak in their area — such as focusing containment measures and other services on particular areas — and that it would be needed for track and trace measures. It is also needed for monitoring how many critical staff have tested positive, and what capacity there is for carrying out more tests.

The email, sent at the weekend from a regional NHS incident centre, said: “No new national testing programme data will be reported in this brief from 4 May until further notice. This is due to the NTP testing numbers increasingly becoming unavailable.

“A reporting solution for NTP data is being built into the [Department for Health and Social Care] portal – once available, it will be captured in this testing brief again.”

Analysis of recent government testing figures suggests that in recent days around two thirds of tests have taken place under the commercial lab scheme, for which the data is not available locally. This includes more than 7,000 positive test results in the past three days, and tens of thousands over recent weeks.

A source said the local intelligence which should be produced from the testing system was instead “disappearing into a data black hole”.

A senior national NHS source said the national testing programme — which is coordinated by the Department of Health and Social Care, with the consultancy firm Deloitte — had previously been “publishing clear details of exactly how many people were visiting each drive-through centre at each hour of each day, and also how many home testing kits were being posted each day. [But as of recent days] it’s now impossible to get that data from them and they are not sharing it with groups they used to share it with internally.”

Last week chief medical officer Chris Whitty and Public Health England’s testing boss John Newton apologised that data from the commercial tests was not available to local public health directors, citing “data quality issues”. HSJ was told this remains the case, with one DPH saying it remained a ”complete data vacuum”. 

The issues come after the testing scheme was hugely ramped up in the run-up to the end of April, to meet a DHSC target of reaching 100,000 daily tests. This was achieved only when tests which had merely been sent in the post were included, and the 100,000 figure was not hit in subsequent days.

There have been widespread concerns in the health and care system about the testing scheme, and the development of national test, track and trace work.

A public health director for a patch in the south of England heavily affected by the virus, said they also had no access to testing data from non-NHS lab tests. He added: “The system remains a mess - multiple routes to test, multiple command structures via the NHS. How are DsPH expected to manage and direct testing?

“We need to arrange testing for staff and for residents. But the NHS does some of it, mobile testing sites run by military do other bits, regional testing sites do others — but travel is a challenge.”

NHS Improvement chair Baroness Dido Harding was last week announced as the government’s test, trace and trace chief. 

A DHSC spokesman said it had been giving data to Public Health England for a number of weeks which it shared with its local health protection teams. He said the DHSC was ”developing a solution” for others such as local authorities to access data.

He said data was not “disappearing” and that “there was a recent technical error relating to postcode data, but this has now been fixed, and a fully corrected data flow was issued last week. This did not prevent public health bodies from undertaking contact tracing of those with positive results”.

He added: “There was a recent technical error relating to postcode data, but this has now been fixed, and a fully corrected data flow was issued last week. This did not prevent public health bodies from undertaking contact tracing of those with positive results.”

13 May 1.55pm: Updated with DHSC comment, when this was provided.