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In one of the most bizarre consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak, the UK’s mobile phone industry has reported a series of attacks on mobile phone masts throughout the country, after reports appeared on social media suggesting links between 5G networks and the coronavirus.
Over the past few days, the UK has seen a number of celebrities, including a well-known talent show judge and a former boxing world champion, amplify unfounded social media rumours that the ongoing deployment of 5G networks in the UK has contributed to the spread of the coronavirus. Right after celebrities tried to organise petitions to investigate the issues, the arson attacks in the Birmingham and Merseyside areas took place. There were also reports of key workers suffering abuse and threats from people about damaging infrastructure under the claims about 5G.
The attacks were immediately condemned by the UK government, scientific experts and mobile industry professionals. At the UK government’s daily press briefing on the state of the response to Covid-19 on 4 April, NHS Director Stephen Powis stressed that the UK’s 5G infrastructure was critical both to the general population who are being asked to stay at home and to the healthcare response to the virus.
“I’m absolutely outraged and disgusted that people would be taking action against the infrastructure we need to tackle this emergency,” he told the press conference. “This is not acceptable and only impacts on our ability as an industry to maintain the resilience and operational capacity of the networks to support mass home working and critical connectivity to the emergency services, vulnerable consumers and hospitals.” Powis gave further interviews where he was quoted as saying: “The 5G story is complete and utter rubbish, it’s nonsense, it’s the worst kind of fake news.”
Powis was supported by UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove who condemned the links between the virus as 5G as “dangerous nonsense”. The UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport posted on Twitter a rebuttal of the claims, commenting: “We are aware of inaccurate information being shared online about 5G. There is absolutely no credible evidence of a link between 5G and coronavirus.” The DCMS pointed followers to the NHS and its own website to gain accurate information on Covid-19. It warned that those responsible for criminal acts will face the full force of the law.
As an extent to which the issue is being taken seriously by the mobile industry, the UK’s leading operators, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, published a joint statement in which they appealed to the public to help them protect the UK’s critical infrastructure and put a stop to what they called misinformation sharing, to prevent vandalism to the networks that people, critical services and the NHS currently rely on.
In the statement, the operators said: “Sadly we have experiences cases of vandals setting fire to mobile masts, disrupting critical infrastructure and spreading false information suggesting a connection between 5G and the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no scientific evidence of any like between 5G and coronavirus. Fact. Not only are these clams baseless, they are harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services. They have also led to the abuse of our engineers and, in some cases, prevented essential network maintenance taking place.”
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Global mobile trade association condemned the GSMA also condemned what it called acts of violence designed to weaken our communications networks in a time of crisis.
In its condemnation, it slammed the use of disinformation from social media. It said the mobile industry must unite in the global fight against COVID-19 and combat the fake news and violent actions linking 5G communications technology to the spread of the virus and called on internet providers, content providers and social media platforms to accelerate their efforts to remove fake news linking 5G to the spread of COVID-19.
“The telecoms industry is working around the clock to keep vital health, education and emergency services online, businesses running, and friends and families connected,” said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA. “It is deplorable that critical communications infrastructure is being attacked based on outright mistruths. We urge everyone to trust health authorities and rest assured communications technology is safe. There is no link between 5G and Covid-19.”
In making its case, the GSMA pointed to a study from the International Commission on Non‐Ionising Radiation Protection that concluded there was no specific undue health risk posed by 5G communications technologies if they adhered to recognised standards.
The conclusions came after a seven-year study looking at improved protection for higher frequency waves, covering upcoming 5G technologies, as well as AM and DAB radio, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and the currently used 3G and 4G mobile phones.