Barbara Parry* arranged to switch her phone and broadband account from Sky to Now TV in March, a week before lockdown. Instead, she was left incommunicado as her line was cancelled and her phone number reallocated.
During the following four weeks, as she pleaded in vain to be reconnected, her partner contracted Covid-19. He died four days later in hospital. Due to the blunders by Now TV, he was unable to call Parry from his deathbed and she was unable to say goodbye. The news was broken by a relative as the hospital could not get through on her cancelled number.
“Now TV’s failed promises have left a 79-year-old woman, grieving for a lost loved one, completely on her own, with friends and family unable to contact her,” says her son-in-law, Anthony. “The day after her partner died, the company reneged on a promise to retrieve her old number and said it was not possible. Instead of promised call backs, we’ve had auto-generated emails asking why we cancelled the contract and I’ve spent over seven fruitless hours on the phone explaining it was a life-and-death situation and trying to get her connected.”
Coronavirus has turned telecoms into a lifeline. Service delays that would once have been an inconvenience can now prove catastrophic. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 77% of people cited phone and internet contact as the most common coping strategy.
However, service providers are struggling with some companies losing up to 40% of staff to sickness and self-isolation.
Ofcom, which regulates the industry, has eased some of the obligations of telecoms firms to reflect the challenges. They are absolved from having to fix problems within the usual 30-day window for customers receiving less than their guaranteed broadband speed and automatic compensation, introduced last year for each day of delay to a repair or installation. Companies are expected to explain to customers why they will not receive a payout and to stop charging those without a service.
“Broadband and mobile firms are focusing their efforts on keeping their customers connected, particularly those who are vulnerable and depend on their services the most,” Ofcom says. “We think this is absolutely the right approach. And we recognise this might affect the companies’ ability to comply with some of our rules. We have written to the providers explaining that we will take account of the unique circumstances when enforcing our rules.”
The problem is that customers with mental or physical impairments had to be registered as vulnerable with their service providers in order to be prioritised before the pandemic. Now anyone self-isolating due to age or a medical condition falls into that category, but may not be flagged up on their provider’s database.
Pensioners Colin and Anne Noddings* found that their landline had been disconnected after Vodafone installed a broadband service. They were told it would take 10 days to restore and Colin had to borrow mobile phones from neighbours to call for updates.
Three days later, the couple was informed that their contract had been cancelled for reasons unknown and the phone number they’d had for 30 years, withdrawn. It would take an estimated 15 days to reconnect them.
“My 73-year-old wife is classed as disabled as her mobility is extremely limited and I have a heart condition, diabetes and have recently been diagnosed with asthma and COPD,” says Colin. “In the current climate we are both classed as extremely vulnerable but in an emergency have no means of contacting anyone.”
Ofcom says it expects companies to provide self-isolating customers alternative means of communication if their issue can’t be prioritised. However, Vodafone only acted when the Observer intervened. It reinstated the line and the original number 13 days after the couple were disconnected and has given them £50 and two months free line rental.
Charlotte Hughes* lost her internet connection in January after a cable to her flat was severed. Virgin Media claimed it was unable to reconnect her because of scaffolding on the council block where she lives. The inconvenience for the first two months, when lack of wifi impeded her search for a job, turned to hardship when lockdown began a week after she underwent surgery for cancer. She was unable to order food online and had to risk trips to the supermarket, despite an NHS letter requiring her to shield, and she was unable to seek comfort from friends and family.
“Skype is the main way I connect, and I simply cannot say what it meant not to have a reliable enough connection to talk to people,” she says. “This was especially difficult at a time of diagnosis and pre- and post-operative treatment for cancer. I was told that the cable had been severed by a Virgin Media technician connecting a neighbouring flat, but the company displays no sense of urgency or responsibility and clearly has no reliable mechanism for communicating between departments or flagging up unresolved problems.”
Virgin Media says that it believed the cable was severed by builders, and that health and safety risks prevented it reinstating the line while scaffolding was in place. After involvement from the Observer, however, it dispatched a “specialist crew” and completed the repair. It has credited Hughes’ account for the 11 weeks she was without service and given her an extra two months free.
The online resolution service Resolver reports a doubling of complaints about telecoms service issues since lockdown. “Most people are pragmatic enough to expect service disruptions and slow speeds, but they weren’t expecting poor customer service,” says spokesperson Martyn James. “We’ve never been more reliant on broadband and mobile phone networks, but our data suggests some firms are falling short.”
Customers who are self-isolating or in financial straits are advised to contact their provider to receive priority status. If that fails, they can still complain to whichever of the two dispute resolution schemes it’s signed up to – CISAS or Ombudsman Services. These are prioritising those who are left without a connection because of delayed installation, a faulty line or inability to pay their bill. Other complaints will be parked until there is a degree of normality.
Parry’s ordeal was caused by disjointed customer service and a failure to escalate the problem. When the Observer alerted the management of Now TV, part of Sky Group, the response was immediate and remorseful. The director of operations called her to apologise, her old phone number was retrieved and her line connected.
Managing Director, Marina Storti, says: “We take our responsibility to keep customers informed and connected very seriously, especially in these challenging times, and we know we’ve let the customer and her family down. We’ve spoken to the family and while we know that no amount of money can make things right, we have met the request of compensation and offered to match it with a donation to a charity of their choice.”
The company’s contrition is some mollification, but the anguish of losing a loved-one without a farewell will never heal. “It’s hard to put into words how much greater the misery has been because of the mistakes,” Parry says.
“They let me down in the first place and they let me down again when we tried to sort it out. I’m a Christian and I believe in forgiveness but this is very tough for me.”