Anger as government admits test and trace website coding error

A coding glitch caused by the government’s “failure” to carry out proper software testing is preventing people from booking Covid tests.

There have been widespread reports of people – including school staff and pupils – not being able to book tests via the government’s website, despite claims that local centres still have appointments available.

In every one of its responses to this pandemic, the government has been incompetent and inept

But programmers have reported a glitch with the booking website itself may be blocking some users from getting through to live appointments.

The problem relates to a stage in the registration process where website visitors can toggle between drive-through and walk-through centres.

Anyone who clicks to change the type of testing site they want to access is subsequently told there are no sites available.

However the website’s code shows that what’s actually happening is the website is failing to connect with the appointments system – so it isn’t even checking whether sites are available.

But rather than showing on the website as an “error”, the page instead still states “no test sites available”.

A Twitter user who spotted the problem, @itsterry, said this means “you’ll have lots of people toggling these to no avail”.

However, users have been reported being able to get a test if they go back through the registration process again but don’t toggle between the type of testing site.

A government source said it is aware of a “minor coding error” and was working to fix it, but has claimed the glitch  did not have “any significant impact on the ability of people to access testing”.

However Baroness Harding, head of the government’s test and trace programme, has suggested that as many as 750,000 Covid test requests go unanswered every day.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said she was “speechless”.

“In every one of its responses to this pandemic, the government has been incompetent and inept,” she told Schools Week.

“For school staff who want to be in school doing their jobs, to not be able to be able to get tests because of a coding error just adds insult to injury.”

She said the government should face questions about how long it had known about the error and what it had done about it.

The problem itself has been highlighted on Twitter by a number of programmers. Schools Week also tested the system and received the same error message in the code as was reported on Twitter.

Adam Leon Smith, who chairs the software testing specialist group of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said he had analysed the problem with the site and found “two failures in the testing of it”.

“First it is necessary to understand that there are two parts in operation – a web page and a service that is telling the web page if tests are available,” he told Schools Week.

“Firstly, it has not been tested in an equivalent environment. The error that is occurring is caused because the web page is trying to contact a service on a different computer to the one it ‘lives’ on – this is totally normal, but is not working here due to a mis-configuration.

“The fact this was not caught in a test process implies that the testing was done in an environment where it did not have to make an equivalent interaction, probably as both the web site and the service were on the same computer, to save money and time.

“The second problem is that it has not been through a process of resilience testing to determine how the system will operate outside normal parameters. Such a test would have checked what happened if any dependencies were unavailable, and handled it more gracefully than just saying no tests were available.”

Leon Smith added although the testing that should have been carried out on the website was not straightforward, it was a “professional discipline in it’s own right and there are thousands of practitioners in the UK who are more than capable of conducting such activities”.

“It would be unprofessional for any organisation to put any system live without involving testing professionals, and it is not uncommon for 30 to 50 per cent of IT project budget to be allocated to testing activities.”

The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.