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Hundreds of local authorities missing vital coronavirus testing data

The vast majority of new coronavirus cases are being left out of public data on local outbreaks, figures suggest.

The government is using localised data to decide when lockdown measures need to be reintroduced in specific areas, as occurred in Leicester on Monday night.

But the government’s publicly-accessible Covid tracker omitted more than 90 per cent of the city’s most recent cases, according to data obtained by the Leicester Mercury.

Nationwide data indicates the tracker is failing to show three-quarters of new cases on average in any given local area across much of the country.

While the full data is being used by public health bodies, it is not automatically available to local authorities who say they need it to prepare for local lockdowns.

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Leicester’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, said his requests to see the full data for his city were only granted on Thursday after ‘weeks’ of trying.

The city council said the figures showed there have been 3,126 confirmed Covid cases since the start of the pandemic – three times higher than the 1,056 shown on the government Covid tracker.

Case numbers are divided between figures collected from NHS labs – called Pillar 1 – and those collected from commercial testing partners – Pillar 2 – which include universities and companies such as Boots, according to the UK government website.

The national total includes all these figures, whereas data published on the government Covid tracker only shows Pillar 1 figures in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Pillar 2 data is only included in the figures for Wales.

This is explained in a note on an ‘about’ page accompanying the tracker but no indication is given of just how much data is missing.

A graph shared by Public Health England (PHE) at a meeting on June 23 and obtained by the Leicester Mercury shows that in the preceding days over 90 per cent of new cases were from Pillar 2.

In contrast, the Pillar 1 figures, which made up the vast majority of new local cases while the UK outbreak was at its peak, had dropped to just a handful per day.

According to PHE-published data collated by the Financial Times, Pillar 2 figures now consistently account for the majority of new Covid cases across all of England as the overall scale of the outbreak shrinks.

In the Yorkshire & Humber area,the weekly number of new confirmed cases rose from 21 to 23 in the most recent two-week period – but this is only visible if Pillar 2 cases are taken into account.

In that area and the East Midlands, new weekly case numbers are as high as they were in mid-April if pillars 1 and 2 are added up.

Across most of the country, Pillar 2 cases have fallen but at a slower rate than Pillar 1, which is reserved for seriously ill patients and the most critical key workers.

The example of Leicester suggests new local outbreaks are likely to mainly show up in the mass swab testing which makes up the Pillar 2 figures.

The Leicester mayor told LBC this morning: ‘We’ve struggled to get data and struggled to get them to keep testing in Leicester. Yesterday was the first time we had certainty.

‘I hope the decision [to lift the new lockdown] will be made on the basis of data, I hope that data will be shared with us.

‘For weeks now we have been trying to get that data, it was only last Thursday that we got that data.

Sir Peter added: ‘I would wish that the Government had shared that with us from the start, taken a more speedy decision rather than leaving in 11 days. That’s a long gap and a long time for the virus to spread.’

A Public Health England official who declined to be named told the Financial Times the lack of complete data is in ministers’ hands.

‘The Department for Health and Social Care need to make the decision to publish — and they should — but we can’t push them because we are their arms-length body.’

The Department for Health and Social Care said: ‘We have been working closely with our local partners, providing them with the resources and tools so that they can take swift action to deal with any new local spikes in infections.’

PHE has been contacted for comment.

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