back to article UK coronavirus tier postcode-searching tool yanked offline as desperate Britons hunt for latest lockdown details

The gov.uk postcode-searching tool for Britons to find out what level of coronavirus lockdown they'll be in until Christmas has crashed on launch and been withdrawn. Arriving this morning as part of the government's scheme to partially lift lockdown measures across England, the website almost immediately died and threw up a …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Managed to look up mine

    But lots of errors and long waits.

    I wondered at the time why they didn't just have a static list / map. Postcode is nice and helps people who aren't sure which region they're in (on the boundary; boundary changes), but not essential if it's going to be that difficult to make it work (which it isn't).

    1. AndrueC Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Managed to look up mine

      Region is always a sore point with me. I live in Brackley so officially that's 'East Midlands' but we're so far south that most of us have more in common with the South East (Banbury and Bicester) and indeed our bit of Northamptonshire pokes down into the South East (part of the M40 is in Northamptonshire).

      South Midlands is a thing and would make more sense but that's not an official UK region.

      Anyway it's fairly academic in this case. It was obvious we were going to be in tier 2 and anyone who needed to check probably hasn't been paying attention to local news.

      1. richardcox13

        Re: Managed to look up mine

        Tier is not based on local infection rates or changes in them. Likely set as easy to describe verbally.

        For how much local situation does not match up to the tiers see https://twitter.com/jburnmurdoch/status/1331961271323942915.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Managed to look up mine

      "Postcode is nice and helps people who aren't sure which region they're in"

      Depends how granular you want to get. Post Codes are created by the Post Office and relate to the regional sorting office, not specific geographic areas or even towns. The first two letters don't even relate to county boundaries, never mind anything else that might seem logical to someone not au fait with the intricacies and politics of the postal sorting and delivery systems.

  2. Flak
    Coat

    Bothered?

    Not.

    1. NeilPost Silver badge

      Re: Bothered?

      ... as there is a reliable one that’s been working for months on BBC.co.uk

  3. John Robson Silver badge

    Tier Zero

    For those unable to look up their tier?

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Tier Zero

      No, tier 504.

  4. AndrueC Silver badge
    Joke

    It's a crying shame...

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Coat

      Yes, it ended in tiers...

      1. Kane Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        If I wasn't such a suspicious bastard I would almost say that setup and punchline was coordinated.

        Upvoted.

        1. Korev Silver badge
          Childcatcher

          It wasn't, I'm just surprised that someone didn't get in with "Tiers" first

  5. Dwarf Silver badge

    Cloud all the way

    If only there was some way of automatically expanding the capability of their web site in line with customer demand then all these problems could be avoided.

    As its public facing, it doesn't even have to be on G-Cloud, so you don't even have to pay over the odds for it either.

    1. John Sager

      Re: Cloud all the way

      Yes, that's one of the few times Cloud makes sense. They should have realised that there would be a gynormous spike for a few hours so spin up a lot of capacity then ramp it back down tomorrow. Thankfully Guido had captured the list so that's where I discovered how stupid the tiering is.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cloud all the way

        It's probably really inefficiently written too!

        1. The Mole

          Re: Cloud all the way

          Yes it was using s post request rather than a nice coachable get request so completely incompetent.

          Why they didn't start with a list/map (if you aren't in these areas you are level 2...) Baffles me too.

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: Cloud all the way

            >Yes it was using s post request rather than a nice coachable get request so completely incompetent.

            Such an error would seem to indicate that it was written by a newbie; so perhaps some in favour Conservative party funder's child now has completed their A-level Computing project, along with sufficient money in the bank to pay for university and some...

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: Cloud all the way

              No - we need to make sure we know exactly who is asking...

              There are 124 Postcode Areas (The initial letters) and ~3k Postcode Districts (The first half).

              That's a pretty easily cacheable set of pages (they can even be symlinks to the appropriate tier page). No need for a lookup at all.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cloud all the way

      They probably do scale out the web tier on demand.

      Unfortunately they are waiting for Microsoft to address scalability issues with the database tier as ODBC to Excel scales horribly when the minions are making updates...

      1. Kane Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: Cloud all the way

        "Unfortunately they are waiting for Microsoft to address scalability issues with the database tier as ODBC to Excel scales horribly when the minions are making updates..."

        Excel? You jest, you know full well it was uploaded as a Word document.

  6. richardcox13
    FAIL

    This is easy to scale... or should be

    A complete list of postcodes, with a tier number is thousands of small entries. Just put it in memory sorted, and binary search. Nothing changes, so no need for anything clever with multi-threading.

    But this is gov.uk so it will be something massively complex and not easily scalable.

    1. monty75

      Re: This is easy to scale... or should be

      Probably only needs the first half of the postcode so an even smaller list

      1. richardcox13

        Re: This is easy to scale... or should be

        Exactly, with less that 3000 this could be done client side: just have the current list be a static file on a CDN (with suitable – few hours – cache). Then do the filtering on the client.

    2. AndrueC Silver badge

      Re: This is easy to scale... or should be

      It probably uses an Excel spreadsheet for the database, and the web server is a VB macro :)

      1. cookieMonster

        Re: This is easy to scale... or should be

        VB.... Bollix, this is the government - the web server is SAP/HANA X....

    3. Dinanziame Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: This is easy to scale... or should be

      Binary search? The word you're looking for is HashMap.

      1. MJB7

        HashMap

        For a small, fixed, set of keys (like post codes), it is quite easy to algorithmically produce a perfect hash function. With a perfect hash function you just need an array of corresponding tiers which you index into.

        The interesting question, is how hard is it to algorithmically produce a hash function which maps the keys directly to Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3?

  7. Stumpy Silver badge

    Apparently I'm either in tier 503 or 404.

    1. Cederic Silver badge

      Yeah, I was a 503, was surprised to read El Reg is getting a 502.

      Not that it seems to make a difference. Everyone's under house arrest until Christmas anyway.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    FFS

    Just break it out into files by area and let search engines index the lot.

  9. Howard Sway

    crashed on launch and been withdrawn

    Somebody needs to be fired for this. The Prime Minister.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: crashed on launch and been withdrawn

      If you start firing Prime Minister's for failed government IT projects I suspect we would need annual elections to keep up with the demand...

      The UK bureaucracy delivers IT projects by treating go-live deadlines as a last chance date for making fundamental changes, with the initial failure setting a benchmark for when a workable system can be agreed too. Usually 6-12 months later.

      And any system that does work "as designed" will either be irrelevant, unused and held up as an example of "government" waste and poor planning or rendered unusable by policy changes from a change of government...

    2. SundogUK Silver badge

      Re: crashed on launch and been withdrawn

      This isn't an 'elected government' problem, it's an 'un-elected civil service' problem. These people are paid large amounts to make government policy happen and are totally incompetent. Dominic Cummings was right - sack the lot of them and start again.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: crashed on launch and been withdrawn

        Sort of true in that it is not *this* elected government, but it was absolutely Frances Maude that spawned GDS. At that point there was a definite switch in emphasis away from making things actually work in favour of user experience, CSS fiddling, and a near-religious fervour for Digital.

        And techies in government seem to be paid nowhere near market rate even after accounting for pension, which has an impact on quality. That's absolutely something in the Government's gift to change.

        Sacking everyone who knows anything about your systems is universally a bad approach. Any sensible change is more gradual, but then Cummings always was a nutcase.

        1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

          Re: crashed on launch and been withdrawn

          techies in government seem to be paid nowhere near market rate

          Been looking for a new contract over the past few weeks. There was a job with HMRC working on something with a deadline at the end of December. They were offering £1,000 per day (or rather, night) for 12-hour shifts. And it was outside IR35.

          Seems they can pay what's required when they're up against it, but the Covid tier lookup tool evidently isn't that important.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: it's an 'un-elected civil service' problem

        It's clear you're not working on this stuff.

        The directive to use "cutting edge web technology" is coming from the top. Suggestions that you can do the same thing with static files are not acceptable and are dismissed. Do it with React please, in a docker container, with npm, and make it cloudy. Nothing less will do.

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: crashed on launch and been withdrawn

        "Dominic Cummings was right - sack the lot of them and start again."

        Actually, the problem started long before he arrived on the scene. It was when the Govt. demanded that IT projects be outsourced and got rid of the people with the IT and systems knowledge. Now you have civil servants with knowledge of the systems and processes but no technical savvy, and outsourced contractors with technical savvy and no knowledge of the systems and processes.

  10. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Kinda

    sums up the governments entire approach to the covid crisis.....

    I joked about them not being able to organise a pissup in a brewery...... I was wrong.... they'd get lost on the way to the brewery.............

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: they'd get lost on the way to the brewery

      And that's if the taxi dropped them off at the front door

    2. Barrie Shepherd

      Re: Kinda

      "........................organise a pissup in a brewery...... I was wrong.... they'd get lost on the way to the brewery.............

      Nah - they didn't know the Brewery was in Tier 3 and was closed.

      They should be fined £10,000 for being out of Tier area.

      1. sabroni Silver badge

        Re: They should be fined £10,000 for being out of Tier area.

        Yeah, but they needed to test their eyes.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How difficult is this?

    Could they not have asked the BBC to just repurpose their election results website?

    1. John Miles

      Re: How difficult is this?

      or even just point it at BBC's version - BBC Lockdown rules: What Covid tier is your area in and what are the restrictions?

      1. NeilPost Silver badge

        Re: How difficult is this?

        Which has worked well for literally months.

        The question is not why it doesn’t work - it’s Govt IT - it’s why has it taken so long to be a thing.

    2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: How difficult is this?

      Yes, need "KISS" written on the side of a bus to parade up and down Downing St and Whitehall. Though the dunderheads and the prime dunderhead are too stupid to understand and seem to go from one shambles to another. As the print media have shown, all you need is a colour coded map

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-the-papers-55096416

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: How difficult is this?

        Trouble is that they probably don't know what KISS means and so charge the advertiser with encouraging people to break social distancing rules...

  12. sanmigueelbeer Silver badge

    Have you tried turning it off and on again?

  13. Securitymoose
    Boffin

    A coloured map perhaps would have been just as good

    Why do people always insist on making things complicated?

    If you're on the border between zones, use your discretion - nanny state, stop telling us how to think.

    1. NeilPost Silver badge

      Re: A coloured map perhaps would have been just as good

      Discretion... nah

      “Stay the fuck out of Scotland/Wales”

      1. Mine's a Large One

        Re: A coloured map perhaps would have been just as good

        And Cornwall too, if you don’t mind.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A coloured map perhaps would have been just as good

      "If you're on the border between zones, use your discretion - nanny state, stop telling us how to think."

      I think we have seen how people think in the UK during the second wave "this won't happen to me". Until it does and it's then the governments fault.

      During the first wave I'm happy to accept government inaction, poor public guidance and a lack of understanding about coronavirus as being significant issues, but six months on from that the behaviour of some groups is unchanged. And the willingness to misconstrue messages to justify behaviour just goes on.

      Or have we forgot about hands, face, space (the earlier messages were apparently too complicated to remember) and too busy arguing whether it's fair that the neighbors went to the supermarket as a couple instead of sending one person, or someone you work with travelled 10 miles to deliver food to their elderly relative or some shop is classed as essential when clearly it's not...

      As long as it somebody else's fault, we can justify anything we do....

  14. RobLang

    It's only gone really wrong when...

    Your web server responds with 418. Everything else is fixable.

    1. theOtherJT

      Re: It's only gone really wrong when...

      A chocolate one, given this government.

  15. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    Not the governments fault ...

    I believe Dominic Cummings was last seen laughing insanely over a doll that looked like a computer and prodding it with a spiky thing ...

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Not the governments fault ...

      Doll?

      I'm sure he would have one of these: Smack-a-Mac

      Which raises the question: can you run a website off a Mac SE?

    2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      Re: Not the governments fault ...

      Rest assured he's planted a few incendiary devices around the place, not least the Brexit one

      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/27/boris-johnson-planning-algorithm-england-white-paper

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    shocked, truly shocked

    a gov online project crash and burnt under TOTALLY unexpected demand?! It's like... first time EVER! Well, at least since that abortive boris-bike voucher scheme site a couple of months ago... But hey, still SHOCKING!! I GENUINELY hope they will get it right NEXT TIME!!! With Hancock and Dido at the digi-helm, WE SHALL PREVAIL AT LAST!!!!

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sure Dido Harding hasn't been involved?

  18. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    I worked in the public sector long enough to know how this works.

    Step 1: Somebody has the idea of a tool, just a low profile thing that can site on the internet and probably deal with a few queries an hour. The tool is specced accordingly.

    Step 2: A politician decides that it would be great to announce this tool as a way of diverting attention away from whatever their current PR disaster happens to be.

    Step 3: Tool can't cope with the sudden influx of traffic. Developers get the blame.

    In this case step 2 was particularly galling as the tool was announced before the press conference which of course generated even more traffic as everybody+dog tried to find out what tier they would be in before the press conference.

    Luckily there was no fanfare around https://coronavirus-staging.data.gov.uk/details/interactive-map because it's actually quite useful.

    1. Stuart Castle Silver badge

      A friend used to work for TFL, doing web design.

      She reckons that what they did primarily was having meeting, and lots of tea, with a little actual web development.

      In fairness to TFL, their web services are actually fairly good and seem to be robust.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Anyone with any sense is working out what they want to do, who they want to mix with and getting on with it!

    Just have a reason to be out, avoid big crowds and don't act like a flash idiot.

    "discretion is the better part of valour" which is why I'm posting this as "AC"

  20. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    Here are the problems that the government should be dealing with at the moment:

    1. You do have to tell people what to do, because there are so many stupid people out there who think they know best.

    2. You have to draw borders somewhere as it would be impractical to do this at a street by street level.

    However the government are creating their own problems.

    1. Boris is obsessed with the idea of being popular. Which means he tries to tell people what to do, then rows back on it when he's put under pressure.

    2. They can't stick to their own rules. Clearly they decided that a good rule of thumb was to set tiers at a county wide level, this prevents things getting too complicated. However they then get as far as Slough and decide to put Slough in tier 3 and separate it from the rest of Berkshire. So immediately other areas (for example most of Kent) as why they have to be in tier 3 just because some towns within their county have a high infection rate? Or for example boroughs in greater manchester asking why they have to be in tier 3 when Boris Johnson's own constituency is in a borough with a higher infection rate than theirs?

    People have suggested that the tiers are being allocated based on how constituancies voted in the last election. This is clearly bollocks as there are plenty Tory MPs kicking off because they are in tier 3.

    Others have suggested that it's purely a north south divide. Again bollocks you only have to look at Kent.

    I fully support the idea that the tiers need to be allocated over quite wide areas. However if you're going to have that as a rule then it has to apply everywhere. You can't suddenly change the rule to avoid upsetting certain people.

    Where I got annoyed though is not on the allocation of tiers geographically. It is in the government's refusal to engage with inconvenient data. According to Boris the tier system before lockdown worked fine. Clearly it didn't otherwise we wouldn't have needed a lockdown. Worse still though is the fact that while it is clear that lockdown has had a positive effect on infection rates across England as a whole, but there are some areas which have bucked the trend. Of course a test and trace system that managed to engage more than 25% of contacts would be a start to understanding why this is the case, but the real problem is that the government and it's agencies and advisors are just treating these areas and inconvenient anomalies rather than trying to work out where their plans are failing and why. Since some of these areas are largely rural the usual reasoning doesn't work.

    If they would engage with the failures as well as their successes from either the tier system or lockdown then they might progress much more effectively. However it seems that Boris and Handjob just think blaming Andy Burnham will wash for their failures across the whole country.

  21. Grease Monkey Silver badge

    I find it interesting how many people say "I live in X and the infection rate here is really low, it's the rest of the county/borough/council area that's the problem"

    The majority of these people don't seem to be working from any real data. They just work from the assumption of "I don't know many people who've got it, so I'll assume that my town/village/council ward has a low infection rate".

    In my own village I've been hearing for weeks "I don't see why we have to be grouped with Dewsbury, we have a low infection rate". It doesn't matter how many times you tell these folk that the local infection rate is at least as high as Dewsbury they won't accept it. Even when you show them this https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/interactive-map they won't accept it because they know they are right no matter what the data tells them. This seems to be repeated across the entire country.

    Finally on my own street this got driven home. There are but 38 people living on this street and last week we had three active cases on the street. One of my neighbours was of the opinion that 3 cases isn't a problem, after all it's only three cases. Since the government like to work in cases per 100,000 population I pointer out to my that the national average is currently somewhere in the 200 per 100K range, or to look at it another way 0.2%. The rate on our own street was about 8% or if you like 8,000 per 100K population. Or perhaps 40 times the national average. Suddenly she got the message.

    1. Stuart Castle Silver badge

      Not being a Tory, I actually don't like being in a position where I feel I need to defend the government, but I agree that larger tier areas is better. I live in London but despite the differences in infection rate between the different boroughs, I think all boroughs should be in the same tier, even though based purely on their infection rate, at least one borough would be tier 1.

      I support lumping us all together because there would be no way of stopping dozens of people swamping an area on a lower tier because they fancy going out, and the shops, pubs and restaurants in their borough are more highly restricted than the lower tier area. There is no way of stopping this short of locking down public transport, and introducing physical restrictions on other vehicles (such as roadblocks). We aren't equipped to do either on a large scale, and I don't want us to be.

  22. N2 Silver badge
    Mushroom

    They should be proud

    To add it to the very long list of previous technical failures,

    Wonder what the excuse is this time?

    Perhaps: "we did it in Excel because that worked so well last time", "Crapita cocked it up again" or did they give the job to Matt Hancocks neighbour for a £20million bung?

  23. s. pam
    Coffee/keyboard

    Crapita?

    Who manages it?

    In reality, wear your damn mask, only socialise as the tiers say, quit panicing dear.

  24. Danny 2 Silver badge

    PC -off World

    I notice the Curry's / PC World website says, "We’re down for a bit of maintenance…but we’ll be up and running again soon!"

    Really, they planned website maintenance for Black Friday? Or have they sold the laptop it was running on?

    1. Danny 2 Silver badge

      Re: PC -off World

      Ah ha!

      Currys PC World asked to honour cancelled Black Friday sales

      Currys PC World is facing a growing number of complaints about cancelled Black Friday purchases, which customers only learned about after the sales period was over.

      The firm has blamed a technical fault for causing some orders to fail even though it had sent confirmation emails.

  25. Stuart Castle Silver badge

    I'm not an experienced web designer, but I do have a fair amount of experience coding in various scripting languages (some at lower level, like c++). I could probably build a system to do this in a couple of hours. A system that given enough horsepower, would scale efficiently. I think the thing that would take longer is actually entering the data for the tables used by the system.

    Also, isn't one of the advantages of cloud computing that it makes it easier to scale up server resources if needed?

  26. David Hicklin

    And they got their wrists slapped in parliment

    The Speaker in the House of Commons gave the government yet another wrist slapping about publishing this before announcing the details to the House first with the only good good bit about it being that it crashed to prevent access.

    Sadly this government won't take much notice, they treat the HoC with utter contempt, something the last speaker would never have let them get away with.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And they got their wrists slapped in parliment

      It gets a bit embarrassing when compared against Rees-Mogg bleating on about how all business should be done in person as Parliament is so important. And then they announce government policy on Twitter instead.

      As you pointed out, it's not the first time the Speaker has complained about it. It won't be the last.

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