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UK

Johnson plays down technical failure of COVID-19 testing data system

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought on Monday to play down a failure in England’s COVID-19 testing data system that delayed 15,841 results, saying the much higher updated figures were more in line with forecasts of the outbreak’s spread.

But the glitch is likely to cast further doubt over Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic: his Conservative government’s response has been cast by political opponents as slow, poorly organised and confusing.

On Sunday, authorities reported a jump in daily COVID-19 cases to a record 22,961, after saying a technical issue had meant that thousands of test results had not been transferred into computer systems on time, including for contact tracers.

“The incidence that we’re seeing in the cases really sort of corresponds to pretty much where we thought we were,” Johnson said, speaking to reporters.

“To be frank, I think that the slightly lower numbers that we’d seen didn’t really reflect where we thought that the disease was likely to go, so I think these numbers are realistic,” said Johnson.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament the technical problem had not yet been resolved. “This incident should never have happened,” he said.

Johnson, who earlier this year promised a “world-beating” test-and-trace system, has more recently said there have been mis-steps but that the government has been confronted with the biggest health crisis since the 1918 influenza outbreak.

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“WINTER AHEAD”

Data published on Monday showed there were 12,594 new positive COVID-19 test results - suggesting the upward trend of cases seen before the discovery of the technical snag continues unabated.

The number of COVID-19 patients in English hospitals also rose to the highest level since late June, at 2,593.

“Now more than ever with winter ahead, we must all remain vigilant and get this virus under control,” Hancock said.

Public Health England said all people whose tests were the subject of the glitch had been given their results in a timely fashion, and that those who had tested positive had been told to self-isolate.

Asked about a vaccine, Johnson said it felt like an AstraZeneca AZN.L project must be on the verge of one. "We are working very very hard to get one," Johnson said. "We are not there yet."

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He added: “I went to see the scientists at Oxford at the Jenner Institute, the AstraZeneca team - incredible what they’re doing. You know you really feel they must be on the verge of it, but its got to be properly tested.”

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, William James, Estelle Shirbon, William Schomberg and Andy Bruce; editing by Kate Holton, Michael Holden and Mark Heinrich

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