U.K. Government’s Tiered COVID-19 Alert Systems Are All Flawed, Warns Disaster Expert

U.K. Government’s Tiered COVID-19 Alert Systems Are All Flawed, Warns Disaster Expert

Epidemic alert systemsU.K. Government’s Tiered COVID-19 Alert Systems Are All Flawed, Warns Disaster Expert


By Carina Fearnley


Published 18 October 2020

Alert systems need to be clear and easy for everyone to understand. Yet, to date, the UK’s national alert system has created confusion and been largely ignored. Now, a second local alert level system has been introduced in England. I’m not convinced it will do any better.



Alert systems need to be clear and easy for everyone to understand. Yet, to date, the UK’s national alert system has created confusion and been largely ignored.


Now, a second local alert level system has been introduced in England. I’m not convinced it will do any better. Other countries, from New Zealand to Vietnam to South Africa, have developed and used alert level systems effectively in the management of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So why is the British government struggling?


The first national COVID-19 alert system was introduced in May, comprising five levels. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland initially wanted their own systems, but have since adopted the same system, with some minor variances. Initially, the UK was set at alert level four, reduced to level three on June 19, and raised to level four again on September 22, presumably when SAGE was arguing for a national lockdown to “break the circuit” following the re-opening of schools and universities.


In May I set out seven key reasons why this alert level systems would fail, many of which have transpired. Changes to the alert level are decided by the all-important R number: the average amount of people a single infected person will pass the disease on to. But it’s proven difficult to accurately establish the R number, and it’s unclear exactly how decisions to reset the alert level are made. All of this is unlikely to change going forwards.


The national alert level also fails to reflect the need for, and subsequent introduction of, stricter local restrictions in specific areas. The value of this national system is further limited given that the levels do not correlate with specific social distancing rules.


It also seems very hard – perhaps even impossible – for the public to find out what the national COVID-19 alert level is. It’s not on the dedicated government coronavirus webpage. This is in stark contrast to other nations like South Africa and New Zealand, where the alert level system is clearly displayed online, the current level highlighted, and the relevant risks and rules for each level displayed in a unified and consistent manner that is reinforced across the nation from a single source.


These issues are somewhat addressed by the new local COVID-19 alert level system. But is it enough to work?