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UK asks carriers to send coronavirus alert as emergency system was never finished

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An SMS message arrives in the UK as the nation goes on lockdown

UK sms alert for coronavirus pandemic
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

The UK government has turned to mobile carriers like EE, o2, Vodafone, and Three to send an emergency coronavirus alert today. It’s the first time all UK carriers have been instructed to send a message to customers on behalf of the government, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

UK citizens are being asked to stay at home and only go outside for food, health reasons, or essential work. The alert asks people to stay at home, and links to the official UK government coronavirus response website. It comes just hours after UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson introduced drastic measures to ban gatherings of three or more people.

The UK government has been forced to work with UK carriers to distribute the message as an emergency alert system, trialed nearly seven years ago, was never finished and put into place. Lord Toby Harris, former chair of the National Trading Standards Board, has accused the UK government of bickering about which department should be in charge of the alert system. “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,” says Harris in a statement to The Guardian.

The UK government is also in talks with mobile operator EE to use phone location and usage data to monitor whether people are actually staying at home or not. That raises a number of privacy concerns that will need to be addressed before data is used to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.