Committee says gap between closure of Airwave and launch of ESN could be a ‘catastrophic blow’
Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned that the delayed launch of the Emergency Services Network (ESN) threatens a “potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe.”
It has said that news that the ESN will now be implemented in September 2020, nine months later than has been planned, and that the contracts for its predecessor network Airwave may not be extended to close the gap are posing a grave threat to the police, fire and ambulance services.
This follows its publication in January of a report expressing scepticism over the then-deadline for implementation of December 2019, and around the budgets for the programme.
The PAC has issued its statement with a new report following the extension of the ESN timescale and indications that Vodafone, the key supplier to Airwave, will stop providing the ground based transmission network service that connects all the elements of the old network. This would effectively turn it off.
The Home Office, which is running the programme, had a contingency measure to manage the transition by extending the Airwave contract month by month, but the this will not be possible if the infrastructure is not in place.
This has raised the possibility that that the emergency services may not be able to communicate with each other between March and September 2020.
The new report calls on the Home Office and Transport for London – which is leading negotiations with potential providers for underground coverage – to work together urgently with Vodafone and Motorola – which owns Airwave – to ensure there will be effective network coverage.
Its other recommendations are that the Home Office should review and be realistic about the current risks, and that the effort to ensure the service works underground is regarded as urgent.
Chair of the PAC 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.
“Addressing this and other serious concerns about ESN raised by our Committee today and in January are significant challenges for the new management at the Home Office."
The committee also said it is concerned over the effects on the programme of a new permanent secretary taking over at the Home Office.
Picture from Scott Davidson (modified), CC 2.0 via flickr