Earlier this week the UK Government reported that a technical glitch, involving Microsoft Excel, saw nearly 16,000 Covid-19 cases go unreported in England. The technical error resulted in the close contacts of those testing positive not being traced, therefore endangering the health of thousands of civilians.

This announcement has reminded all organisations of the very real dangers associated with using and trusting manual reporting tools and methods such as Excel to hold and report on important data.

Microsoft Excel is a fantastic application and the tool of choice for not only accountants and analysts, but many business users. It was never the intention for Excel to be adopted as a database or reporting tool. However, many organisations still heavily rely on Excel to handle and manage extremely important data and reporting requirements. This reliance is open to several risks which can, in turn, impact decision making, performance and cost – or in the case of the UK Government, health and safety implications.

The UK Government’s data issue was caused by the file size of the raw data in Excel exceeding the maximum file size that could be processed. This is a common scenario that data professionals encounter daily and which should have been planned for, but it shows how easily this, and other factors can have an impact on accurate reporting.

Aside from the risk of data loss, what are some of the other major risks of relying on Excel to house important data?

Human error

Human error is a big contributor and failing of reporting in Excel. With the growth and variety of data sources businesses face, relying on manual processes to manipulate and shape data into a workable format in Excel is susceptible to data integrity issues. Copy, cut, paste, formulas and ranges all carry risk in terms of ensuring the correct data is used.

Adopting a modern reporting tool such as Power BI minimises the risk of manual error. Power BI connects directly with your organisation’s data sources, such as SQL Server, and it automatically updates when data is refreshed. Data refreshes can be scheduled for set times, reducing the need to manually update reports and dashboards. Whilst Excel can also connect directly to SQL Server, it relies on manual refresh and cells can be easily overwritten.


Excel is not a good choice for collaboration, largely due to how Excel reports tend to be shared, rather than the tool itself. The most common way (still!) that many Excel reports are shared is via email as a hard attachment. This carries risk where the sender may be passing errors on or by passing an uncontrolled report, allowing the receiver to manipulate and change the underlying data and potentially compound issues. It also runs the risk of multiple versions of the document and data being created.

With the use of Office 365, these risks are minimised as Excel can be collaborated on in a controlled manner and in real-time, removing the risks of multiple hard copies sent via email. Microsoft Teams and SharePoint are just two tools which empower teams to collaborate on Excel spreadsheets in real-time in a controlled environment. Office 365 and OneDrive also have built in capability for version control.

Security risks

There are several security risks associated with sharing Excel reports. Passwords will give some level of security but can be broken. If the intended audience is only meant to see a particular subset of data, then applying filters and sharing runs the risk of exposing the full data to that audience. Manually controlling the revision of Excel reports is also labour intensive.

Once you pass a spreadsheet through email to another person, the data is completely out of your control. You cannot revoke access or control what they do with the data you have sent them. This is another major concern of the government’s use of Excel to house personal data.

Microsoft cloud services provide a safe and secure environment to share and collaborate from a single point, thereby minimising potential risks.


If there is anything to be learned from this week’s news, it is that the risks of relying on Excel to house critical data are very real and should not be overlooked. If you would like to know more about how Incremental can help you digitally transform legacy applications or out of date processes, please get in touch to speak with one of our experts.