London calling on an outdated line

Coronavirus Daily
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London calling on an outdated line

In March, almost everyone in Britain received a basic text message pushed out on the country's mobile phone networks, telling them to "stay at home," after Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared a national lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus. But that blanket message couldn't be sent out simultaneously and took most of the day to deliver using aging SMS technology.

The move came under criticism for its clunky pace and the confusion created when millions of people got a message from an unfamiliar number. That led to an opportunity for scammers, who sent bulk messages of their own pretending to be government and health authorities, leading to a warning from communications regulator Ofcom.

Now the government is trying a new tactic to get alerts out in a faster and more targeted way, as cities like Leicester with fast-rising infection rates are put under localized lockdowns and health advice gets more specific (or complicated). Officials are working with Britain's mobile network operators to develop a 'cell broadcast' system, which can be tailored to certain locations and uses a separate channel to straightforward texting. That means it can function even when the main network is congested, according to the mobile phone industry group GSMA.

The government has also been accused of fumbling its use of technology to test, trace and control the spread of Covid-19. In June it ditched plans to develop its own contract-tracing app protocol in favor of a version built around technology from tech giants Apple and Google.

Britain had also already looked at the merits of cell broadcast but not committed to it, while other countries like New Zealand successfully rolled it out before 2020. Its uptake in the U.K. only after the crisis hit could be seen as another avoidable delay in using technology to control the spread of coronavirus.—Thomas Seal

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