Phone carriers beg people to stop setting fire to 5G masts, especially at hospitals

Vodafone CEO Nick Jeffries says arsonists, spurred by false coronavirus conspiracy theories, are preventing people saying goodbye to loved ones.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

5G masts are victims of arson attacks in the UK.

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Thinking of setting a phone mast on fire? Please don't.

5G phone masts across the UK and several other European nations have been subject to arson attacks in recent weeks due to the circulation of scientifically unsound conspiracy theories linking the spread of coronavirus to telecoms equipment.

In a LinkedIn post on Tuesday, Vodafone CEO Nick Jeffries said that 20 of the company's UK-based 5G masts had been victims of arson attacks. One of those masts serves NHS Nightingale in Birmingham, one of the field hospitals set up to treat COVID-19 patients.

Not only are the arson attacks damaging national infrastructure, said Jeffries, they're also preventing isolated patients from keeping in touch with their loved ones, and even stopping those who are dying from saying a final goodbye. He pleaded with arsonists to stop and think. 

"Imagine if it were your mum or dad, your gran or grandad in hospital," he said. "Imagine not being able to see or hear them one last time. All because you've swallowed a dangerous lie."

Watch this: Coronavirus 5G conspiracies catch fire, E3 2021 will be a 'reimagined' event

The theory that 5G can cause or spread COVID-19 is categorically not true. Scientists have said there is no evidence 5G can harm your health, and the theory has also been debunked by independent fact checker Full Fact.

Vodafone is one of the UK's big four carriers, all of which have been affected by the attacks. EE , for instance, has seen around 22 attacks -- not all of them successful -- and around 60 engineers had been victims of harassment, a company spokesman said. One person had thrown a brick at an engineer's van, he said, though without causing injury.

To protect its staff, EE encourages engineers to work in pairs and is hiring extra security to protect sites that might be at risk. Over the past few weeks, EE has noticed geographical patterns, with clusters in Ealing, Birmingham and Liverpool. With around 30,000 mobile sites in total across the country, many of which are used by multiple networks, it is very much a team effort to keep them safe.

No pattern has emerged on the timing of the attacks, and they don't seem to be escalating, but according to EE, they're also not slowing down. Police in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, said they were investigating a fire that destroyed a telecoms mast in the early hours of Tuesday morning, which included equipment from three different network operators, as well as kit used by the emergency services.

"Theories being spread about 5G are baseless and are not grounded in credible scientific theory," said Gareth Elliott, head of policy and communications for industry body Mobile UK, which represents EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three. "Mobile operators are dedicated to keeping the UK connected, and careless talk could cause untold damage. Continuing attacks on mobile infrastructure risks lives and at this challenging time the UK's critical sectors must be able to focus all their efforts fighting this pandemic."

The UK government has also spoken out against the circulation of the conspiracy theory linking coronavirus and 5G. NHS England's National Medical Director Stephen Powys dismissed the theory as "complete and utter rubbish," while Cabinet Minister Michael Gove described it as "dangerous nonsense."

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