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Covid-19 Government Alerts: is the message getting through?

Tue 26 May 2020 | Javier Colado

Javier Colado, Head of International at Everbridge, underlines the importance of planned and collaborative communication to keep civilians informed

We are in unprecedented times when reliable and trusted communication has never been more essential in saving lives and preserving livelihoods.  To say that the world was not prepared for COVID-19 is a massive understatement.

Whilst some countries declared lock-downs early, others were slower to respond. It is still too early to comment on what was the best approach, since there was a sensitive balance to be struck between the threat to life and the threat to national economies.  What is clear, however, is that in most countries across the world, we are now dealing with soaring infection rates and immense pressure on national health systems.

For companies like ours, with software applications that automate how organisations respond operationally to critical events, keeping people safe and businesses running is a daily objective. We have been preparing for an emergency on this scale for a long time, but where normally we deal with events that are limited in their size or scope, severe weather, terrorism or a power outage for example, Covid-19 is unlimited in its severity and it’s global.

Which means there is all the more reason for a trusted, proven approach to communication at all levels, from governments, national and local authorities down to public and private businesses. Unfortunately, what this crisis has demonstrated is that in many countries when it comes to public alerting, there is a striking lack of cohesion and little in the way of planned thinking.

In the UK, which has no public alerting system in place, the government has worked with mobile network providers to send a text with an important ‘stay at home’ message to the UK population at the point that lock-down was introduced. It was long overdue.

Other countries have been using mobile alerting, apps and online updates from the moment the pandemic began. A few days later in the UK, a coronavirus information service was launched on Whatsapp, to ‘provide official, trustworthy and timely information and advice about coronavirus (Covid-19), and further reduce the burden on NHS services’.

The government’s efforts to communicate should be applauded. In research carried out by Everbridge amongst over 9,000 people in 13 countries last month, 72% of UK respondents said that texting was an excellent channel for communication, so this was clearly a good move. But, unless this is part of a planned series of messages, it has limited impact, and it could raise more questions than it answers.

The general public is looking for an informed, considered strategy from the government in the middle of this crisis, and what we are actually getting by way of alerts is disparate and muddled. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Mobile technology has much more to offer than a single text blast to everyone, delivered at different times depending on the network they use. Technology exists to target people specifically and simultaneously and with meaningful, targeted messages.

This could mean texts to those at risk due to their geographic location; those that are in public areas who should be paying more attention to the lock-down and need to return home; and instead of a single communication with no means to reply, two-way alerting that allows vulnerable citizens to respond if they are safe, or more importantly, if they need help.

The government is very likely to be aware of what technology is available to deliver a state-of-the-art public alerting system. A project was launched by the Cabinet Office back in 2014 to trial alerts to mobile devices which found that responders wanted to see the implementation of a national alert system and a majority of citizens involved in the trial agreed.

We also know that the government has already committed to complying with the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), an EU directive, which requires that a system of this kind is in place by June 2022. So, this prompts the question – if they are aware of the capabilities of mobile public alerting – what has been the delay in implementing it widely?

It’s not only the ability to communicate with entire populations across multiple channels from SMS/texts to emails and phone calls, that is important. These systems also aggregate situational intelligence by collecting information from many different data sources. They then consolidate this data to generate a unified view or ‘single pane of glass’ of the entire situation. Imagine how useful this would have been in the last few weeks to keep people informed and provide targeted guidance and instructions.

It’s possible that we will see more widespread embracing of technological solutions as the Covid-19 crisis continues. If not, we have to hope that the government takes action soon to implement a system that can communicate effectively during all phases of a crisis, and provide support during recovery.

Most of us couldn’t possibly foresee an emergency on the scale of Covid-19, but crises happen all the time, and if technology can help to save lives during these situations, then it should be put in place without delay.

Experts featured:

Javier Colado

Head of International


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