uk emergency services ambulance

Emergency Services Network faces further delays and spiralling costs

The delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is likely to be delivered even later than expected and the costs are forecast to rise £3.1bn over the original budget, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

ESN is intended to replace Airwave, the system currently used by emergency services in Great Britain to communicate.

In 2017, the Home Office realised that it could not deliver ESN in the way it intended and decided to “reset” the programme, costing taxpayers an extra £475m a year until its completion. 

All of the UK’s emergency services and over 300 public safety organisations communicate using the network and its coverage is superior to any of the publicly available networks, with 99 per cent coverage.

However, the network runs on a 2G connection, which limits its functionality. The 4G connection provided by ESN will allow for live video streaming from officers on the scene and quick transfer of data relevant to ongoing incidents.

The NAO has questioned if the replacement for Airwave will meet its target date of 2022, while the Home Office predicts the final cost will be £9.3bn.

The NAO’s report raises doubts about the revised date and also says key technology for ESN is not yet proven in “real world conditions”.

Parts of the programme have progressed since the NAO last reported in 2016, it said. ESN will be run by EE, which has upgraded its network to enable priority emergency calls to be made by emergency services and has extended its coverage to reach 98 per cent of the population of England, Wales and Scotland.

The NAO also said that the Home Office’s management of the programme has led to delays, increased costs and poor value for taxpayers.

Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe.

“The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order.”

The NAO’s report said: “There are still significant risks and, based on past performance, it seems unlikely that ESN can be delivered by the target date of 2022.”

Technology needed to allow emergency services to communicate effectively using ESN is not yet ready, according to the watchdog.

It said aircraft are currently unable to receive the signal needed to communicate with those on the ground and devices are unable to communicate directly with one another without a network signal.

While ESN is expected to be cheaper than Airwave in the long-run, savings will not outweigh costs until at least 2029, the report concludes.

The introduction of 5G networks could also be a boon for emergency communications as it allows for “network slicing”, which can guarantee spectrum for certain critical uses regardless of the amount of traffic on the wider network. 

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