Emergency services face 'potentially catastrophic' communication gap

MPs warn that six-month delay of cheaper ESN system approved by Theresa May could be ‘tragedy in waiting’

Britain’s emergency services face a “potentially catastrophic” six-month period without a crucial communications system, MPs have warned.

Theresa May, when she was home secretary, approved the purchase of the £1.2bn emergency services network (ESN) as a cheaper option to replace the Airwave communications system currently used by police, fire and ambulance services.

The Commons public accounts committee has found that ESN will be delayed for nine months, which could leave “blue-light” workers including anti-terror officers without any proper means of communication for half a year.

The conclusions of the report could be used to embarrass the prime minister in the run-up to June’s general election. Questions will be asked why May chose to buy a system which the National Audit Office found to be “inherently high risk” because it had never been implemented anywhere before.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable. Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be quite simply a tragedy in waiting.”

Today’s report warns that Vodafone, a key supplier to Airwave, will from March 2020 stop providing an important piece of infrastructure that Airwave requires to function, essentially turning it off.

The committee has been told that the ESN system, which was supposed to be ready by July 2018, will instead begin running in September 2020.

Earlier this year, the committee concluded that it was unlikely that the December 2019 target date for delivering the new system would be met. An extension to the Airwave contracts, the Home Office’s “sole mitigation” against delay in putting the new system in place, might not be possible, the report found.

MPs called on the Home Office to engage urgently with the two companies on the options for resolving the Airwave issue. May praised the purchase of ESN in January 2015, claiming that while it was a cheaper system, it was also smarter than Airwave.

“While we have made a start on reforming the inefficient and expensive use of police IT, there are still huge opportunities to drive savings and deliver operational benefits,” she said.

“The new emergency services network which will replace the current Airwave communications system used by the police, will provide a system which is better and smarter while also saving the emergency services around £1bn over the next 15 years.”

Vodafone UK, which is not involved in delivering the new system, said it has been in detailed discussions with the Home Office and Motorola Solutions since it became clear that the ESN project could be delayed.

Motorola Solutions said Airwave would not be switched off early: “We identified the need to upgrade the legacy core transmission network provided by Vodafone to ensure that Airwave can continue beyond its original operational end-date of March 2020.

“We are working with the Home Office and Vodafone to identify viable technical options to extend the service and will be proposing our recommendation in June 2017 to the Home Office. None of this impacts our Lot 2 delivery of the ESN, for which we are on track.”

Brandon Lewis, minister for policing and the fire service, said there will be no gap in the emergency services’ communications provision. “The existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to the emergency services network is completed,” he said.

“Keeping people safe is our priority, which is why we are delivering the world-leading ESN to support our police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives.”


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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