Dame Esther Rantzen, the founder and president of the Silver Line, which provides information, friendship and support to older people, urged BT to “rethink the current policy of removing landlines, which for many of our callers are a lifeline. People should have the choice. If there was blanket coverage and if this were happening in 25 years’ time, things would be different – but right now, you have to allow older people the choice. “
When she launched the Silver Line in 2013, early backing came from then CEO of BT Gavin Pattinson, who gave “vital donations” to cover the cost of the calls. “Just over half of callers ring us from their landlines,” says Dame Esther. “They ring us because they need help, because they’re frightened, anxious, or alone at 3am or on a Sunday afternoon. I can’t overstate how callous this decision is for older people. Once again this is an example of older people being out of sight, out of mind and neglected. “
None of the readers who contacted the newspaper objected to the program in principle; BT subsidiary OpenReach, which oversees the installing and maintaining of cables for all landline operators, is replacing a system designed in the early Eighties to last 15 years.
“No one is making spares any more,” says BT’s Chris Howe. “If we keep it going past 2025, the technology will start to fall apart. The new system operates similar to the way things are today, but give better quality calls, future-proofs the network and allows us to use AI scam protection on landlines. ” Readers unanimously accept this point. But they object to how poorly the change has been communicated, to the lack of choice, and to a system that is ignoring the concerns of those left behind, battling loneliness and health issues.
Also, many readers have reported being told that the landline switch-over is a government decision and that staff are just carrying out instructions. This, telecoms regulator Ofcom informed The Daily Telegraph, is not true – the decision is industry-led, not government or regulator-led.
While BT has the largest number of landline customers, with 38 per cent of the market, Ofcom has been critical of most of the companies involved – including BT, EE, KCOM, Plusnet, Shell Energy, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and OpenReach – pointing out that consumers seem unaware that they are to be migrated until a few days in advance, that it is not clearly explained battery back-ups are available and that customers have been cut off from telecare thanks to companies failing to assess customer needs .
“We have to hold our hands up and say we have not got this right,” BT’s Chris Howe admits. “This is the largest and most complex technology transfer in decades. We have worked hard, but there is more to do. “
For Dame Esther and for Martin Jones, the CEO of telecare provider Home Instead, there is still not enough discussion of the loneliness older people will face if the service fails. “Gone are the days when families live in close proximity – it’s not just the elderly who need to reach out,” says Jones. “Families need the reassurance and comfort of being able to easily check in. The apparent lack of thought on the part of BT is disappointing. The impact will be to increase loneliness and isolation.
“Imagine if this change had come in before Covid. It would have been monumental. “