Emergency alerts message system launches with nationwide test planned for next month

SMS alerts initiative has been in the works for five years and was originally slated to launch in October

Government’s new emergency alerts system is now live, with a nationwide test – in which phones around the UK will issue a 10-second long “loud, siren-like sound” – planned for next month.

The system – plans for which were first mooted five years ago, and was scheduled to launch in October – will send messages to all phones within range of a designated network mast. Alerts will be issued when there is considered to be an imminent threat to life, most commonly from extreme weather, including heat, cold storms, and wildfires.

All phones connected to a 4G or 5G network are capable of receiving the messages, which the government claims equates to 90% of phones in the UK.

The SMS messages will be marked by the emittance of “a loud siren-like sound for up to 10 seconds… [which] users must acknowledge” before they can access any other apps or features.

For most of the country, the first time they receive such a message will be on 23 April, when a “welcome message” – including a siren noise that will sound for the full 10 seconds – will be sent to phones across the UK. As with the actual alert notifications, the welcome notification will remain on screen and must be acknowledged before other features can be accessed.

Alerts will include details of the threat, alongside any applicable instructions and links to where more information can be obtained. Users can choose to opt out of receiving the messages via their devices settings, although government guidance advised that “these alerts are potentially life-saving so we recommend you keep them switched on”.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden MP said: “We are strengthening our national resilience with a new emergency alerts system, to deal with a wide range of threats – from flooding to wild fires. It will revolutionise our ability to warn and inform people who are in immediate danger, and help us keep people safe. As we’ve seen in the US and elsewhere, the buzz of a phone can save a life.”

Explorations of the development of the alert system began in 2018 and localised testing took place in Suffolk and Berkshire in 2021.

To enable to rollout of the system, the government awarded five-year contracts – worth a cumulative £15.9m – to each of the of UK’s four mobile network operators: EE; O2; Vodafone; and Three.

Tech firm Fujitsu has been signed to a deal worth up to £5m through which it “will be responsible for all the technical delivery, design iterations and 24/7 operational support” of the alerts programme.

Sam Trendall

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