Andy Burnham, is calling on the telecommunications industry to cut the bills of older and vulnerable landline telephone customers after a powerful exchange on yesterday lunchtime’s phone-in with members of the public on BBC Radio Manchester.
Participating in his weekly Hot Seat programme, Andy spoke to Greater Manchester resident Mary, who explained that while she is self-isolating at home her landline telephone acts as her only form of communication with the outside world during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
“I have no computer, the same as thousands of other elderly people,” Mary told presenter Mike Sweeney live on BBC Radio Manchester. “[As customers] we are all very concerned that at the end of all this our telephone bills, if we do try to communicate with people, are going to be astronomical.”
Mary, who is in her 80s, challenged the Mayor and the telecommunications sector to come to the aid of all older people, and those vulnerable at this time, and to cap the cost of landline phone bills.
“Is there anything you can do, or the telecommunications industry can do, to help the elderly so they can pick up the phone, ask for help or just to have a chat?”
Telecomms companies and the Government recently announced a joint package of measures to “support vulnerable consumers”, including some “free calls from landlines or mobiles.” However, there is no one standardised approach across the industry, and no approach that includes over-75s in the grouping classed as “vulnerable.”
Granting cheaper landline use for older customers, and those vulnerable at this time, would enable individuals to remain in contact with their friends, families, carers and the wider community, and act to combat social isolation or feelings of loneliness or depression.
Andy said: “Mary’s call on today’s Hot Seat on BBC Radio Manchester really hit home. It is such an important point and she raised something that has been on my mind. My parents are in a similar position to Mary, having not left the house for some time. The deeper we get into this crisis the more difficult it will become for people experiencing the effects of isolation, and the more they will need contact with other people. For many people the only form of communication with others at the moment is over the telephone.
“Therefore, it is important to welcome the commitment of the telecommunications industry in working to change their practices to make life easier for vulnerable people at this challenging time. However, the sector and the Government should go further and extend the support to all people aged over 75 – they should be supported and have a cap placed on their monthly landline bills.
“BT are the biggest provider of landline services in the UK and they recently announced a £5 cap on the cost of any phone calls made by a customer who only has a landline. They say those customers will never pay more than £5 in addition to their line rental each month. While others are offering free landline calls it is only for a short window – therefore I call on the industry to adopt as a minimum the model of BT, so that the older and vulnerable people in our communities can rest assured that their phone bills will never spiral out of control. Landline users, like Mary living here in Greater Manchester, need support at this time and I hope soon the industry can provide her with even more peace of mind.”
Many of the benefits the telecommunications industry recently announced with Government are designed to aid those classed by providers as “vulnerable”. However, in most cases individual customers are required to alert their providers to the fact they should be classed in that category. Consequently, there is a recognition that many people classed as vulnerable by Government during this COVID-19 crisis are in fact unknown to landline providers.
Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has committed to alerting the regulator, Ofcom, to the discrepancy and working with the regular and the big landline providers – including BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media – to update providers’ databases and vastly extend the support on offer to vulnerable customers.
Elise Wilson, Digital City Region lead for GMCA, said: “The telecommunications sector is to be praised for its work in supporting vulnerable people at this time. However, as Mary’s call to BBC Radio Manchester earlier today demonstrates, many customers remain unaware of what is available to them. I would encourage anyone who feels they should be classed as vulnerable person to contact their landline, mobile or broadband provider and explore if there are ways of reducing the cost of your bill.
“I also commit the GMCA to working with the sector and the regulator to explore ways they can more effectively engage with older and vulnerable people – it is essential as many people as possible know what support exists and can be safe in the knowledge that any extensive use of telephones or the internet during this period of lockdown will not hit them in the pocket in the week and months to come.”