Openreach engineers report abuse linked to bogus 5G Covid-19 conspiracy theories

By Ben Fitzgerald - 4 May 2020

CommunityHealthBusiness

An increase in abuse directed at Openreach engineers, largely due to a mistaken belief they’re working on 5G, is hampering essential work to keep the South West connected.

Openreach is the UK’s largest phone and broadband network – used by customers of BT, Sky, Plusnet, TalkTalk and many more - and plays a leading role in connecting the region’s essential public services including GP surgeries, pharmacies, emergency services, and food distribution outlets.

But recently, there has been an increase in incidents across the UK involving engineers, of which there are over 3,500 in the South West, being subjected to mindless verbal abuse and intimidation linked to a bogus 5G theory.

The vast majority of these relate to theories circulating on social media channels that 5G is responsible for the coronavirus crisis. Mobile phone masts across the country have also been targeted in arson attacks as conspiracists claim the electromagnetic waves of the network have somehow induced the pandemic.

In Bristol, a group of engineers was confronted by a resident who forcibly removed one of the protective guard rails surrounding the manhole they were working in before shouting obscene abuse at them, accusing them of installing 5G equipment, which they were not.

In Weston-super-Mare, two engineers were verbally abused with obscene language while working on a cabinet.  A male on a pushbike accused the engineers of causing cancer through 5G and when he was ignored, threw a can of energy drink one of the engineers.  Two further incidents have been reported in Weston-super-Mare, including one in which a member of the public threatened to beat up engineers.

In Torquay, a group of engineers was verbally abused by an older member of the public on a mobility scooter; and in Glastonbury, an engineer was abused by a woman who accused him of installing 5G and threatened that she would “get him arrested”.  She was encouraged to call the Police.

In other parts of the South West and the UK, dozens of engineers have been intimidated, including having bottles of water thrown at them, threatened with physical harm, warnings that the Openreach network will be damaged, a huge amount of verbal abuse, including pretending to shoot at them with a gun hand gesture.

Matthew Galley, Openreach’s Partnership Director for the South West, said: “These recent attacks on our engineers, here and elsewhere in the UK, is not only deeply concerning but totally misjudged. They’re playing a vital role in connecting crucial public services, vulnerable customers and millions of friends, families and businesses. They are not working on installing 5G.

“Our engineers are designated key workers and closely following government guidance in terms of social distancing. At this time, they’re primarily focussed on the build, repair and maintenance of connections that support critical national infrastructure. 

“This work includes the NHS – where our engineers have been installing and upgrading phone and broadband services in support of the new Nightingale hospitals, including in Exeter.”

Openreach engineers receive guidance and support in how to respond to any threats by members of the public where they feel unsafe and all incidents are reported to both an internal security team and the Police if necessary.  

As designated key workers, engineers are still carrying out nationally critical work, building new full fibre networks out in the street, but they won’t be entering customer’s homes unless there is a vulnerable customer without service.

All of this important work is helping to keep the Openreach’s broadband network running smoothly. Since the stay at home restrictions were introduced, we’ve seen an increase of around 23 per cent in internet usage across the South West.

This increase is mainly during daytime hours as more people are working from home and home schooling.

For more information about Openreach’s key worker status for engineers visit openreach.co.uk.

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