Government ignored advice to set up UK emergency alert system

Failure to follow up on trials mean there is no ability to send coronavirus advice to mobiles

The government does not have the ability to send advice on coronavirus directly to Britons’ mobile phones, after repeatedly ignoring its own findings that an emergency messaging system could help the country in times of crisis.

South Korea’s aggressive use of emergency alerts has been credited by some for helping to keep the country’s infection rate relatively low, while many other European countries have built systems allowing governments to issue warnings about threats to life.

When politicians in the Netherlands became concerned on Sunday that too many people were flouting physical distancing rules and congregating in parks, they used their emergency messaging service NL-Alert to send a message urging the public to avoid congregating in open spaces and keep their distance.

NL-Alert is our government's alert that warns and informs the Dutch people about an emergency. We receive an NL Alert for life and health threatening situations.... today we received the message to stay 1,5 m apart from each other and stay indoors when you’re sick! #Important

— veronica (@veronica2710) March 22, 2020

But seven years after the UK Cabinet Office conducted successful trials of an emergency alert system and set out how the country could build a similar system, there is still no sign of it being developed. So when Britons began congregating in parks at the weekend, there was no way to issue a formal warning to the public in real time.

Instead the British state is reliant on traditional media outlets and social media sites to communicate indirectly about isolation measures, competing with disinformation on messaging services such as WhatsApp. This has resulted in suggestions that mixed messages from ministers and a lack of a major public information campaign are hindering efforts to highlight the severity of the pandemic, with the government yet to take up the offer of free advertising space on sites such as Facebook.

Map of UK hotspots

Toby Harris, who has long campaigned for a UK alert system, said the British emergency messaging service had been a victim of inter-government squabbles and concerns over who would provide funding.

“It’s fallen between government departments as to who is going to pick up the bill, who’s going to lead on it, and all sorts of issues,” said Lord Harris, who highlighted the effectiveness of similar systems in Australia and Portugal for warning about risks from forest fires.

The Labour peer said the inability to inform the public of an impending risk to life was a major flaw in the government’s toolkit: “What is ridiculous is that you haven’t got the facility available.”

In 2013 the government concluded that “not only would alerts be seen as a useful service by the public but that it would also be an effective way of getting people to take specific protective action during an emergency”. Although the proposals focused on the potential for using the system to deal with environmental disasters or terrorist attacks, there is no reason it could not have been reconfigured to spread official health advice in serious medical emergencies.

The government’s communications strategy has come under fire in recent days, with some pointing to the prime minister’s sometimes mixed tone regarding the need to allow people to visit parks.

The NHS on Monday began sending text messages to many of the 1.5 million people considered to be at severe risk if they are infected with coronavirus, telling them to stay inside for 12 weeks. The health service’s ability to communicate with all of this group is limited by the lack of contact details, although it is aided by the fact that many in this category are receiving ongoing medical treatment for issues such as cancer. The industry lobby group Mobile UK also said it was in discussions with the government over ways it can help the fight against coronavirus, including the use of widespread text message campaigns.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Advice about face masks varies. Wearing them while out and about may offer some protection against both spreading and catching the virus via coughs and sneezes, but it is not a cast-iron guarantee of protection

Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. Check with your local authorities for up-to-date information about the situation in your area. 

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

Prof David Harper, a former chief scientist at the health department, said it was necessary to wait until post-pandemic scientific studies had been completed to have a full analysis of whether an emergency messaging system would be effective but there were reasons to suggest it may help risk management. “The demonstration in other countries, where people can be notified directly by text of where there were – or are – cases of Covid-19 … seems to have had an impact.”

He also said there were real concerns about the impact of disinformation clouding the public message and suggested the prime minister’s comments about the pleasures of going out in parks showed the importance of tone in public health warnings. “It’s not exactly that what was said was wrong – the intention is laudable. It’s the nuance,” said Harper. “Something was missing; it’s not the substance of what is said because people should be staying inside. To me there’s a relatively straightforward message but there’s clearly confusion.”

In addition to the enormous number of people tuning in to traditional television news broadcasts, many private media companies are taking matters into their own hands and ramping up efforts to communicate official guidance. Facebook is increasing the prominence of its coronavirus health advice within both its main app and its Instagram service, while Sky News has also started showing a video in its advertising breaks encouraging people to spend the time between news segments washing their hands.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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