Gov­ern­ment ig­nored own ad­vice to set up emer­gency alert sys­tem

The Guardian - - News Coronaviru­s - Jim Water­son Me­dia edi­tor

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.”

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