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Mayors sound alarm over effect of digital switchover on telecare

Finger pressing off switch
Image source: Soellner

A group of city-region mayors have raised an alert over the possible effects on telecare care of the planned switchover from the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to digital lines.

The mayors of Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, North and Tyne and West of England sent a joint letter to the Government expressing their fears and calling for a pause in the change and a number of measures in a national action plan to mitigate the risks.

Telcoms operators are planning to turn off the PSTN, on which many telecare devices for vulnerable people operate, by the end of 2025.

This has previously prompted warnings from sources including the Local Government Association (LGA) and London’s chief digital officer that it will disrupt telecare and impose extra costs on local authorities. Earlier this month, Julia Lopez, the minister for data and digital infrastructure, told Parliament that her department would not meet the cost of replacing devices.

Grave concerns

The mayors have now sent a letter to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Department for Health and Social Care saying that, while they support the need for the switchover, they have “grave concerns” about the effects on an estimated two million people dependent on telecare.

They have proposed an action plan that includes: a telecare industry charter setting out its responsibilities; an agreed process involving the industry, telecoms companies, the LGA and the NHS for the switchover; a national reporting mechanism to track serious issues; and a coordinated approach to data sharing relating to households with vulnerable people.

In addition, they want a communications effort led by central government to raise awareness of the issue and guidance for local authorities on how to manage the consequences.

The letter adds: “Local authorities have a huge range of operations, so the impact for them is larger at a time when adult social care budgets are under strain. We would urge that these budgetary pressures are properly considered, and a fund be established to offset costs to local taxpayers, which are estimated to run into the millions per metropolitan borough.”

A statement on the issue from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority highlighted the risks to some telecare users, saying they could be switched to digital services without the necessary checks.

It added that, without additional funding, telecare service providers will have to consider introducing charges or downgrading services.

Need for safety

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said: “Urgent action is needed to ensure the safety of vulnerable people. We shouldn’t be making changes to infrastructure that keeps people safe without absolute confidence in the new arrangements and the transition process.

"We want to see a pause in the roll out of this programme while safeguarding measures are fully considered. We are also calling for a national action plan to tackle these crucial issues, and the Government must consider the costs of this switchover incurred by local public services.

“Last week Ofcom announced a new investigation, prompted by concerns about how vulnerable people are being identified, protected and supported. They also want to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency organisations.

"Having examined current telecoms processes and listened to feedback from telecare services across Greater Manchester, we believe that this is an industry-wide issue that requires governmental accountability and oversight.”

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