Old wheelchair user with smartphone

Brits told ‘stay at home’ via SMS; some older people could be left isolated

Image credit: Dreamstime

The government has ordered the UK’s mobile network operators to send citizens emergency SMS alerts warning them to remain indoors to contain the spread of Covid-19. However, there are concerns that older people could be left isolated by the lockdown.

This week marks the beginning of a police-enforced lockdown in the UK. All but the most essential business operations are being forced to close physical locations, moving to operate online only, and citizens are permitted to leave their homes only under very limited circumstances. Lawmakers and academics hope that the lockdown – which follows similar lockdowns put in place in other badly affected European countries – will slow the transmission of the novel coronavirus which causes Covid-19.

The lockdown was announced in an extraordinary broadcast to the nation by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which was watched by more than 20 million people. Citizens will be warned again to remain indoors via an emergency SMS text message.

The UK does not have an emergency alert system like the US Wireless Emergency Alert network. Plans for an equivalent emergency alert system were formulated with the help of local responders and network operators and tested in 2014 but never implemented, despite a successful trial and strong public support for the system.

In its absence, the government has now requested that the mobile network operators send a text message to all their customers. The message says: “GOV.UK ALERT CORONAVIRUS. New rules in force now: you must stay at home. More info and exemptions at gov.uk/coronavirus Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”

Due to the message being sent by different network operators, customers have been receiving this text at various times through the day.

Mobile network operators are in talks with the UK government about the possibility of using location data from customers’ phones to help track the extent to which lockdown measures are being adhered.

Official government advice about managing the lockdown – which advises working remotely and getting groceries delivered if possible – has sparked concerns that some older people may be left isolated through the pandemic.

While the fraction of older people online has risen significantly in the past decade, people above the age of 65 are significantly less likely to use the internet. According to the Centre for Ageing Better, 80 per cent of nearly five million people in the UK who have never used the internet are above the age of 65.

This could result in many older people being shut out of crucial health advice issued online; video calls with family and friends; video calls with GPs, and essential deliveries arranged online.

“The internet has become increasingly important to our lives in recent years – keeping us connected to people, services and information – and the coronavirus epidemic is set to dramatically accelerate this trend,” said Patrick Vernon, associate director for connected communities at the Centre for Ageing Better.

“As many of us increasingly connect to our colleagues, friends, and family online rather than face-to-face, there is a risk that those who aren’t internet-savvy are left behind.

“Our research has highlighted the importance of developing confidence in using the internet and offering personal, community-based support to develop these skills. In times like this, that support is more needed than ever.

This is the time for internet service providers and digital companies to think creatively about how they can help people stay connected”.

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