39 engineers working for BT have been verbally and physically assaulted by people who believe the conspiracy theory that new 5G mobile technology is linked to the spread of COVID-19.
BT chief executive Philip Jansen, himself recovering from mild coronavirus symptoms, said these theories must be discredited to protect his staff and the key infrastructure they maintain.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday over the weekend, Jansen said BT engineers had been “confronted, abused and sometimes attacked in the street” and received death threats.
“These are Government-designated key workers, out—with no small risk to their own health—to ensure that broadband and mobile networks keep working. Without these engineers fixing faults, adding capacity, and installing new lines, people lose their connection,” he wrote.
Additionally, 11 BT mobile masts and a total of 33 from all operators have been damaged or destroyed through arson, Jansen wrote on Saturday. Attacks on the masts surged further over Easter weekend, with mobile networks reporting 20 additional cases of arson on phone masts in England, Scotland and Wales—including on a site in Birmingham which provides mobile connectivity to one of the emergency Nightingale hospitals.
The destruction of network infrastructure has cut people off when they most need connectivity, Jansen said.
“That may not sound a lot, but if the site that provides coverage to your house gets burned down, it matters,” he wrote. “If you can't call 999 or get through to a lonely parent to check they're okay, it matters. If your link to family, friends and the outside world when you're feeling truly isolated, gets destroyed because of a baseless and reckless conspiracy theory, it matters.”
Marc Allera, head of BT’s consumer divisions, said the attacks were disrupting infrastructure as networks are handling unprecedented numbers of 999 calls—“New Year’s Eve levels every day.”
“The thing that keeps me awake at night, just imagine if there was a critical 999 call that needed to be made from that mobile mast that couldn’t get through,” he told BBC 5 live last Thursday.
However, Jansen said that many of the masts attacked weren't involved in the delivery of 5G and that some were for landline phone services.
Conspiracy theories about 5G—first linked the death of birds and impact human health—have gained new traction since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus earlier this year. Rumours that the new mobile technology causes or accelerates the spread of COVID-19 have been promoted by celebrities on social media and circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp. Coronavirus conspiracies have been so rampant on WhatsApp, the messaging service has imposed new restrictions on the forwarding of messages to limit their spread.
There’s no scientific evidence that 5G, an upgrade of previous mobile networks, causes harm to human health or is at all related to the spread of COVID-19.
Jansen wrote: “In the simplest terms, 5G is just a new radio network – like 4G, but better. It's a more efficient technology, delivering amazing new speeds for customers, but from the same radio waves that have been safely in use for decades. But it's difficult to understand, so it's an easy subject for conspiracy theorists to jump on and rally against.”
A spokesperson for trade body Mobile UK also rubbished the theories: "Theories being spread about 5G are baseless and are not grounded in credible scientific theory.”
The government has also denounced the theories, with Michael Gove branding them “dangerous nonsense.”
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