Britons will have either received or will soon receive a text message from the UK government advising them to stay at home following the announcement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday.
However, the fact that it took the course of a day to be able to send an important message to all UK residents is farcical, especially when other countries have been doing this for years.
Since the end of the Cold War, Britain has not had a way to alert the public during an emergency (with the exception of television, but the rise of the internet makes this less effective with time).
Whilst some of the UK’s air raid sirens remain in place in some parts of the UK, it is perfectly possible to not realise an urgent situation is happening except through word of mouth. Despite the government doing its best to reach the public through public adverts, press conferences and ministerial statements, the government’s message has still fallen through the cracks for some.
Other countries for many years have had a range of different ways to alert the public in the event of a local or national emergency. This can range from ‘amber alerts’ to bring the public’s attention to a child abduction to national televised warnings for an incoming missile attack.
Countries such as the United States, Canada, France, Japan and Australia (as featured above) all have multiple and clear ways of informing the public during a emergency to help save lives, but the UK – despite having a flood season each year – still does not.
That is not to say it was never tested – trials of an national mobile alert system were tested and were well received. 85 percent of people thought it was a good idea and views on intended compliance from such messages were also high, according to a concluding report on the trials.
But despite the value they would have had in advising people in real time to stop mass gatherings over the weekend, squabbles of who would provide funding have led to inaction for almost seven years.
Cost was the same reason why public information films, such as the infamous ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign, have not been as prevalent during this outbreak, as the body assigned to producing them (Central Office for Information) was axed in 2011.
Whilst other countries can receive notifications like the one above just minutes after a government decision is agreed, the lack of action from successive governments in the UK has led to a trickling-down of information, which is no longer acceptable in an age of misinformation.
Consecutive governments have gutted their own ability to alert the public in an urgent situation and it will be up to the inquiry that will almost certainly follow this outbreak to uncover how many lives could have been saved and how many cases prevented if such measures had been introduced years ago.