UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences


Improve Covid-19 alert level system to save lives

7 January 2022

The UK’s Covid-19 Alert Level system* is close to meaningless to the public and adds to confusion about what people should or shouldn’t be doing, according to a new report by UCL researchers.

Covid warning

The report, published by the UK’s National Preparedness Commission (NPC), concludes that the five-level alert system is pointless because the levels are not linked to specific actions, unlike systems in other countries that have been praised for their response to the pandemic.

The result is that the UK version has little value or benefit and just adds to the torrent of messages the public receive, causing confusion and putting lives at risk, according to the report, entitled Enhancing Warnings.

The report’s authors Dr Carina Fearnley and Professor Ilan Kelman, of the UCL Warning Research Centre, argue that warnings must translate into decisions and actions, otherwise they are not fulfilling their purpose.

In New Zealand, for example, the Covid-19 Alert Levels Summary sets out four levels, each with clear guidance on the risk assessment and range of measures in place across key sectors. As a unified and comprehensive source of information, it gives authorities the credibility, accountability and transparency they need to ensure everyone knows what to do, setting expectations and responsibilities from the outset.

Having introduced the UK Covid-19 Alert Levels system two months into the first lockdown, the UK government did later create a three-tier local alert system which included specific actions. However, with this then sidelined by further national lockdowns, the report’s authors are clear this has only added to the public’s confusion.

Co-author Dr Carina Fearnley (UCL Science & Technology Studies), Director of the UCL Warning Research Centre, said: “Successful Alert Level Systems provide a framework to help people understand what is happening in a crisis and how they should respond as its severity ramps up or down. They save lives by supporting people to prepare for, and navigate through, a crisis and fostering a collective sense of responsibility.

“Without a robust Alert Level System at the heart of our country’s pandemic response, people are being bombarded with a stream of ever-changing advice that is reactive, inconsistent and unclear. There is no doubt this is costing lives.

“In the UK, government advice on Covid-19 is increasingly seen as politically driven, rather than representing the best available information from trusted, expert sources, supported by decisive leadership from politicians. Conflicting messages have led to confusion and an increasing sense of ‘them and us’, which we know reduces compliance.”

The report’s authors also point out that in the UK the triggers for raising or lowering the Covid-19 alert level – in this case, the ‘R’ number – are regularly redefined, adding to a lack of trust. Whilst adaptability and adjustability are important, the report states that the decision making process on crossing alert-level thresholds should be clear and transparent to enhance compliance with measures.

Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the National Preparedness Commission, said: “A strong Alert Level System should provide a roadmap for a country dealing with a crisis, maintaining independence from the ebb and flow of politics and personalities. We are at a crucial point in this pandemic where there is a risk that non-compliance with guidance becomes a serious problem for the NHS and for wider society, as official advice is undermined.

“The National Preparedness Commission brings together some of the UK’s best experts in handling emergencies. It is clear the country could do better. There is still time to make a difference and to save countless lives and we stand ready to support the government in this effort.”

The report sets out how to implement a successful Alert Level System in the UK. Key advice includes**:

• Encourage the public to work together by setting clear expectations as to how the public should respond at each level of alert

• Consider carefully the criterion used to determine thresholds, or whether it will be based on broader risks. This requires a wide range of independent input.

• National level standardisation significantly reduces confusion whilst also being able to facilitate local requirements

• Enforcement of the rules is needed.

The Enhancing Warnings report also looks more broadly at lessons from several key large-scale crises including human-caused climate change, terrorism and poverty. It makes practical recommendations on how to develop effective warnings and successfully engage the public to prepare, and to act when a crisis hits.

*Alert graphic: (The national alert system, UK government). See slide 1 here

**For the full list of recommendations see p29 of the report




  • Coronavirus health warning poster on a Scottish high street. Credit: iStock

Media contact

Mark Greaves

T: +44 (0)7990 675947

E: m.greaves [at] ucl.ac.uk