New blue light communications system hit by fresh delays

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The Home Office is still unable to say when a planned new communications system for Britain’s blue light services will be operational, despite spending almost £2 billion on the project, the Whitehall spending watchdog has said.

The proposed new Emergency Services Network (ESN), first announced in 2015, was supposed to have replaced the ageing Airwave system for police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales, by 2020.

However the National Audit Office (NAO) said that despite the turn-off date for Airwave having already been extended twice, first to 2022 and then to 2026, the Home Office now admits it is likely to be later, although it cannot say when or how much it will cost.

Motorola, which provides Airwave, was originally contracted to provide elements of ESN, but in 2021 the Home Office wrote to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) expressing concern its profits from Airwave were “excessive” and acted as a disincentive for completing ESN on time.

At the end of 2022, the Home Office agreed to end the contract early, paying Motorola £45 million, taking the total spent with the company on the project to more than £300 million even though it does not expect to be able to use any of its critical software or systems.

Until a new contractor has been appointed, the Home Office cannot say when Airwave can be turned off.

In the meantime it has estimated that between April 2015 and March 2023, it spent £2 billion on ESN and £2.9 billion on keeping Airwave going. Maintaining Airwave into the 2030s could cost at least £250 million a year.

The head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, said it was “extremely worrying” the Home Office still did not know when ESN will be ready or what it will cost.

“Home Office is in the process of letting new contracts to put the programme on a sounder footing,” he said.

“It must now also put in place a realistic timetable and robust contractual and governance arrangements to address the significant risks this programme still faces and avoid any further waste of taxpayers’ money.”

A Motorola Solutions spokesman said the company will continue to support ESN through “transitional services” until the end of 2023.

“Motorola Solutions is committed to the essential Airwave network, which is relied upon by the 300,000 emergency services personnel who protect communities across the UK every day,” the spokesman said.

“As the NAO recognises, the Airwave network operates at the highest levels of reliability and coverage.”

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