Government launches WhatsApp 'coronavirus chatbot' to offer health advice

It is hoped that the new chatbot service will help reduce the burden on the NHS

The Government has launched a WhatsApp chatbot to provide NHS advice in an effort to take pressure off the NHS's 111 service and combat the spread of misinformation.

Users are told to add a phone number to their contacts list, 07860 064422, and send the word “hi” to the Gov.uk WhatsApp account. This will add the chatbot, the Gov.uk Coronavirus Information Service.

But users who first added the Government bot experienced a bug on its launch. All reporters in the Telegraph's Technology team tried to make contact with the bot, but were met with an error message: “Sorry, we did not recognise your reply.” 

A WhatsApp spokesman said: “We’re aware that some people are currently having trouble accessing the Coronavirus Information Service. WhatsApp is working hard to get things back to normal as quickly as possible.” A Government spokesman said the issue had since been fixed.

The Government chatbot was designed to “allow the British public to get answers to the most common questions about coronavirus direct from government”.

The Government WhatsApp chatbot does not seem to work yet for all users

Matt Idema, WhatsApp chief operating officer, said the tool was designed to “answer the public’s questions about the virus with reliable, timely health advice, in order to keep people safe”.

The World Health Organisation is launching a similar WhatsApp chatbot in a bid to spread health information about coronavirus after successful trials in South Africa.

The importance of clear UK-wide communications has never been more acute amid the coronavirus crisis. Unlike many countries, Britain does not have an emergency messaging or SMS system that allows the Government to reach out to citizens in times of crisis.

On Tuesday, the Government sent out a mass text message to the whole British public for the first time, warning them to stay at home and sending out a link to the new rules on social distancing. The Government had to ask networks to send out this message as it does not have a centralised emergency alert system to do so.

On Wednesday, millions of people were still waiting to receive the text message. Due to the size and demand being placed on UK networks by texting tens of millions of phones, the messages had to be sent out in batches to avoid overwhelming the network. The texts were sent over SMS, but the older system is less fit for sending out mass messages, as the government needed.

WhatsApp should provide a quicker route for sending updates quickly about coronavirus, as well as quashing rumours and panic. “In light of the fact the UK doesn’t have any formal national emergency messaging service, unlike the US, a WhatsApp messenger bot service is probably the next best thing,” said Matt Navarra, a social media consultant.

Prof Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said the system would keep the public updated and provide assurance “they are not misled by any of the false information circulating”.