‘Tragedy in waiting’: Government slammed over potential six-month gap in emergency service communications

Written by Rebecca Hill on 21 April 2017 in News

Plan to update emergency services communications network dealt another blow as scathing Public Accounts Committee report warns of “potentially catastrophic” impact on public safety

Delays to launch of ESN could put public safety at risk, say MPs - Photo credit: Flickr, l.bailey_beverley, CC BY 2.0

MPs have slammed the government for failing to properly prepare for a delay in the launch of the Emergency Services Network, after suppliers revealed that part of the existing infrastructure will be turned off before roll-out of the new system is complete.

The ESN is due to replace the Airwave radio system that the UK’s 105 police, fire and ambulance services currently use to communicate, but the Home Office has repeatedly come under fire for planning an overly ambitious timetable.

The new network - which will use the UK’s existing 4G mobile data network rather than a dedicated public service network - was due to be ready for December 2019, to take over when the contracts for the Airwave scheme expire.

But the Home Office said last year that there would be some “slippage” of the initial timeline, and in December revealed that there would be a nine month delay, with roll-out due to be completed in September 2020.

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Initially, Motorola - one of the suppliers working on the network - said that it would be possible to extend the Airwave contract on a monthly and regional basis to cover the roll-out period and ensure that communications could continue.

However, it has now told the Public Accounts Committee that Airwave supplier Vodafone will stop providing a crucial piece of infrastructure in March 2020 - six months before the Home Office’s revised completion date.

The committee said it was “greatly concerned” about the delay, adding that it “strikes a major, potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe”.

In a statement published alongside the report, committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: “The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable. Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be quite simply a tragedy in waiting.”

The PAC said the government needed to “urgently engage” with Motorola and Vodafone about how to resolve the issue could be resolved - and added that it was “extremely disappointing” the HOme Office hadn’t picked up on the risk earlier.

“The department cannot afford to be caught off-guard again.”

The committee indicated this was particularly frustrating because the department had been warned about the seriousness of the risks to delivering the ESN - and the need to properly prepare for them - by both the PAC and the National Audit Office.

“Given the warning to the department that it was underestimating the risks, it must review all the current risks to the programme and be realistic and open about these,” the report said. “The department cannot afford to be caught off-guard again.”

The PAC also said that the suppliers needed to “accept their share of responsibility and ensure they are upfront about problems in delivering the network”.

A further “significant and imminent risk” to the programme identified in the report is the ability to provide emergency services communication underground, with the Home Office yet to finalise how this will work.

The department is working with Transport for London on how to extend the network into the London Underground, with TfL leading on the negotiations, but a business case for this will not be complete until June or July 2017 - six months later than the initial target date.

The committee said that, because London is one of the first regions scheduled to switch from the old to the new network, this would give just six months to move from business case to roll-out.

It said that TfL and the Home Office needed to work to ensure coverage underground as a matter of urgency, stressing that delays could have a knock-on effect on the programme.

Finally, the committee noted that the imminent election was likely to lead to a new permanent secretary overseeing the project, which it said added to its concerns for the future of the programme.

The committee has previously praised the relative stability in leadership of the project, saying that the most senior official “set up the programme in February 2011 and had remained in post since then”, with low staff turnover “throughout the life of the programme”.

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