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Emergency 999 mobile network faces crisis

Sources have warned that delays to the 999 mobile network could put lives in danger - © Justin Kase zninez / Alamy Stock Photo
Sources have warned that delays to the 999 mobile network could put lives in danger - © Justin Kase zninez / Alamy Stock Photo

A vital contract to expand mobile phone coverage for the emergency services is in crisis with work under way at only one out of around 300 locations where new masts need to be built.

The Home Office was this weekend understood to be considering scrapping a deal with Lendlease, the construction outsourcer, amid fears that police, fire and ambulance crews in some of Britain’s most difficult to reach areas will suffer communications problems due to delays to the new Emergency Services Network (ESN).

The multi-billion-pound project is supposed to replace the existing radio system, Airwave, by the end of next year, but forces were scheduled to begin migrating to the network in June.

Lendlease is responsible for building sites necessary to provide coverage to 3,879 square miles of remote and rural areas, including roads, used by hundreds and thousands of front line emergency services crews.

The firm, which shared in the £200m contract to provide extended area services coverage with four other companies, has only secured a “handful” of planning permissions from local authorities and private individuals to build the sites, according to the source.

Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary to the Home Office, is understood to be dissatisfied with Lendlease’s lack of progress and the way the project, approved by Theresa May when she was home secretary, has been handled by the department.

An ambulance responding to a 999 call
An ambulance responding to a 999 call

“[Rutnam] has a very different view to his predecessor about the way the project has been handled so far. He has been less ambitious in his approach and thinks the timescale didn’t leave enough room for delays and put in enough contingency. He recognised the risk in the previous programme,” said the source.

“It will be completed far past its deadline and will miss its objective of being a lower-cost alternative to the current network by some way,” the source added. Another source close to the project said the Home Office had been “naive” in its grasp of the complexities and scale of the task it faces. These have been well-documented by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has previously issued damning appraisals of the state of the project.

A third source with knowledge of the project said: “It’s extremely difficult [to provide this coverage] and the whole team, the Home Office and Lendlease, does not have the experience.”

A source with knowledge of critical communications network deployments said: “It isn’t going to happen and the end result is people could die. This could be the very network that one day saves your life.”

The Home Office denied it is considering scrapping the contract and said Lendlease was doing its work effectively. A spokesman did not comment on the number of sites where work has commenced but said planning permission has been sought for 61 sites and granted for 24. He added that 69 heads of terms - early stage agreements - have been signed and that work will be completed in line with the programme’s transition deadlines.

The Home Office has previously said that no service would be forced to migrate to ESN before they were satisfied the service would be equivalent to Airwave. But Motorola, which runs Airwave, has warned it will not be possible to keep the network running beyond March 2020 .

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