Government ignored own advice to set up emergency alert system
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 as potentially 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 to keep their distance.
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.
As a result, when Britons began congregating in parks at the weekend, there was no way to issue a formal warning 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.
The Labour peer Lord Harris, who has long campaigned for a UK alert system, said the British emergency messaging service had “fallen between government departments as to who is going to pick up the bill, who’s going to lead on it … What is ridiculous is that you haven’t got the facility available.”