UK turns to WhatsApp to share coronavirus information

Zack Whittaker

Three years ago, the U.K. government chastised WhatsApp for enabling end-to-end encryption by default. Today, it's relying on the encrypted messaging app as a vital service for sharing information about the coronavirus pandemic.

The new chatbot, supplied by the U.K. government, will let anyone subscribe to official advice about the pandemic, known as COVID-19, in the hope of reducing the burden on its national health system.

Send "hi" to 07860 064422 (or +44 7860 064422 for international users) over WhatsApp to start receiving updates.

The U.K. government's official WhatsApp account, which it's using to share information about the coronavirus pandemic (Image: TechCrunch)

The U.K. government said the service will also allow the government to send messages to all opted-in users if required.

Currently the U.K. does not have a national emergency alert system, unlike the U.S., to notify citizens en masse about incidents or emergencies. South Korea was praised for its use of sending up-to-date emergency alerts to citizens, which experts say has helped "flatten the curve" of infections, a reference to slowing the rate of infection to help ease the burdens on hospitals.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared a national lockdown on Tuesday, ordering all non-essential citizens and residents to stay at home in an effort to fight the spread of the pandemic.

U.K. authorities had faced criticism for failing to issue the stay-at-home order sooner. Several other countries and cities with spiking infection rates, including Italy and New York, had ordered their citizens to remain at home.

As of Wednesday, there were more than 438,000 confirmed global cases of COVID-19, with 19,000 deaths recorded.