The UK’s new mobile emergency alert system: what is it and how does it work?

Government will test new scheme this month with warning sound and vibration on nation’s phones

Emergency Alert system
The government has been working on the scheme for three years, and staged pilots in East Suffolk and Reading
(Image credit: UK Government)

The UK will test its new mobile phone “emergency alerts” system this month, despite concerns that it could endanger those at risk of domestic abuse by revealing hidden phones.

At 3pm on Sunday 23 April, all 4G and 5G phones in the UK will beep and vibrate with a message, even if they are switched to silent. People can tap “OK” or swipe away the notification to dismiss the alert, said the government, but the noise will stop automatically after 10 seconds. If you have your phone switched off, you will not receive the message.

It was originally planned for the early evening, according to the BBC, but was brought forward to avoid alarming large numbers of people at the FA Cup semi-final, which kicks off at 4.30pm.

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The government has been working on the scheme for three years, and staged pilots in East Suffolk and Reading.

Why is it happening?

“Thirty years after Britain decommissioned its national air raid siren network, the government is setting up a new system to warn citizens”, said the Financial Times (FT). “The shriek of sirens has become the defining sound of emergencies,” it said, especially during the Second World War when their sound was “a constant in many parts of the UK”, warning of German bombing raids.

The government has said it would use the alert scheme “in a defined area when there is an imminent risk to life”, including extreme weather events like last year’s wildfires and flooding. Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of the system, said it could be “the sound that saves your life”.

"You are not going to be spammed by the government with constant incoming messages,” he told the BBC. “The bar for this is exceptionally high.”

“We must use every tool at our disposal to keep people safe,” said Mark Hardingham, the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council. The test “may be inconvenient for some”, but “please forgive us for the intrusion, because the next time you hear it, your life… could depend on it”.

It is unlikely to be used during an active terror attack, according to Sky News, as the attackers “would then receive a notification as well”, but the broadcaster added that decisions would be taken as and when needed.

Does it happen in other countries?

The system is modelled on similar schemes in the US, Canada and Japan, said the FT, while in the Netherlands it is also used to warn about terrorist attacks. They “have been credited with saving lives during severe weather events”, said the FT.

All 4G and 5G Android and Apple phones are filled with emergency alert capability worldwide.

Does the alert put people at risk?

Domestic violence campaigners fear the test could reveal hidden phones of vulnerable people and abuse victims, potentially putting them at risk.

The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) warned people with hidden phones to turn off the alerts. NCDV’s Sharon Bryan described hidden second phones as “an emergency lifeline for victims and survivors living under the constant threat of abuse”. “This siren test may unexpectedly reveal their presence to abusers – with disastrous consequences,” Bryan said.

Emma Pickering, from domestic abuse charity Refuge, said it was a “very real risk to survivors of domestic abuse”. “These devices can be a lifeline for women who need to access support or flee their abuser,” she told the BBC.

The government said it had been working with charities and organisations who focus on vulnerable women and girls “to ensure they are not adversely affected”, according to Sky News, and had taken their concerns on board.

People who want to keep their phones concealed can opt out of the system in their device settings, or turn the phone off before the test.

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