Labour fails to back up claim that the NHS owns 10% of the world’s pagers

22 June 2023
What was claimed

One in 10 pagers currently being used across the world are owned by the NHS.

Our verdict

Labour has not provided evidence which backs up this claim. The figure was used by the Department of Health and Social Care four years ago, and may stem from coverage of a clinical messaging company’s 2017 report, which is no longer in circulation. Other more recent figures from US pager companies suggest the NHS may account for far fewer than 10% of the world’s pagers.

Only one company in the world still manufactures pagers, with the NHS estimated to own 1 in 10 pagers still in use.

Labour press release, 13 June 2023.

The NHS is using 79,000 pagers, an estimated one in ten of the total globally.

Last week the Labour party released new data about the number of pagers being used in the NHS and claimed that the health service is estimated to own 10% of the devices in use worldwide.

Its press release also said there are nearly 80,000 pagers still being used across the NHS in England. Both figures were included in stories on MailOnline and in The Times.

When Full Fact asked Labour about its claim that the NHS is estimated to own 10% of the world’s pagers, it did not respond, and it has not provided evidence which substantiates it. 

The figure was used four years ago by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), and it may stem from coverage of a clinical messaging company’s 2017 report. Other more recent figures from US pager companies suggest the NHS may account for far fewer than 10% of the world’s pagers—though as Labour has not responded to our queries, it is also possible its claim could be correct based on data we have not seen.

Political parties should ensure they back up their claims with evidence and if claims are based on figures, they should be transparent about sources and calculations.

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What has Labour said?

Labour said that Freedom of Information requests sent to all NHS trusts in England found that 79,000 pagers are still in use across the health service.

Full Fact has not seen the FOI responses and therefore we don’t know how many trusts responded with figures. But we have no reason to think this figure is wrong.

The party’s press release, which has not been published online, does not explicitly say where the one in 10 pagers claim comes from. But it includes a link to a Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announcement from 2019 about former health secretary Matt Hancock banning pagers from the NHS.

The DHSC said at the time: “The NHS uses around 130,000 pagers at an annual cost of £6.6 million. More than one in 10 of the world’s pagers are used by the NHS.”

We have approached Labour by phone and email asking if its “one in 10” claim comes directly from this 2019 DHSC release, but we have received no response at the time of writing.

When shadow health secretary Wes Streeting referenced the figure at the NHS ConfedExpo conference in Manchester on Wednesday 14 June, he said “at last count, one in 10 pagers that are still in use across the world is owned by the NHS”, suggesting it might be an older estimate.

But if Labour was relying on the DHSC release, it did not make clear that this was four years old, and given the estimated number of pagers in the NHS appears to have fallen sharply since 2019, there’s no reason to think the proportion of the world’s pagers accounted for by the NHS remains unchanged.

It’s also unclear what the DHSC claim in 2019 was based on. When we asked the DHSC, it told us this week information on where it got the figures is not held centrally.

Where does the figure come from?

While neither Labour nor the DHSC have said where the “one in 10” estimate originates from, we have found a 2017 report in the Guardian which makes a similar claim.

It cited a report from a clinical messaging company based in Derbyshire called CommonTime, which said the health service had around 130,000 of the devices at an annual cost of £6.6m—exactly the same figures as were used by the DHSC in 2019.

We have found what appears to be a press release from CommonTime, dated 30 August 2017, which claims that at that time there were an estimated one million pagers in circulation worldwide. 

But because the accompanying report from CommonTime appears to no longer be available online, we cannot check where this estimate comes from or how accurate it was at the time.

We contacted CommonTime, which has since changed its name to Alertive, to ask for a copy of the report or clarification. Alertive told us: “The CommonTime solutions business and brand was discontinued in early 2020 and we ascertained from the new leadership team of the company (which has been renamed Alertive) that they believe that the figures quoted in the report were sourced and validated by an independent third party but they don't know the details of this study.” 

What other estimates are there?

We have not been able to find any definitive data on the number of pagers in use worldwide, which means we can’t say for sure how accurate Labour’s claim is. 

But the 2017 claim about the NHS using 10% of the world’s pagers has been queried before—for example, this 2019 Wired article referenced figures from the Critical Messaging Association suggesting it could be an overestimate. And other more recent figures from the US suggest the claim may not be accurate in 2023.

If Labour’s FOI data showing the NHS uses 79,000 pagers is correct, then for the NHS to own 10% of the world’s pagers there would have to be around 800,000 of them in use globally.

DirectPage, a pager provider in the US, told Full Fact that it has estimated this year that there are more than two million in use in the USA, though it’s not clear if this figure is directly comparable with the NHS estimate.

DirectPage says that its estimate is based on the nationwide paging carrier Spok having 811,000 “wireless units” in service according to its first quarter 2023 results—Spok also confirmed to us directly that it has over 800,000 pagers in operation—and its estimate that another nationwide carrier, American Messaging, has several hundred thousand pagers in operation.

DirectPage’s manager Jack Uniglicht added: “These figures do not include smaller regional paging carriers, facility/on-premises pagers, pager apps used on smartphones, etc which we estimate to make up the remainder of the two million figure.”

It is not clear what proportion of the two million estimate is represented by smartphone paging apps, or whether the estimate can be directly compared with the NHS figure. 

But the 79,000 pagers Labour found to be in use in the NHS would represent just one in 26 of just over two million, if that is a correct and comparable estimate—and this does not take into account the number of pagers which may be in service outside the NHS in the UK, and across the rest of the world.

Image courtesy of Ian Taylor.

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