Telco retail stores are essential to keeping people connected – they must be deemed critical from now on

From key workers to vulnerable people, the presence of all communications providers on the high street is a lifeline for customer support.

The reopening of shops in England from December 2 is one of the measures included in the Government’s Covid Winter Plan that, for the sake of supporting millions of our customers – particularly those who are isolated, vulnerable or without digital skills – is absolutely critical.

That doesn’t apply only to BT and EE. The retail stores of every major communications provider in the UK play a vitally important role in keeping people connected in these extraordinary times.

We fully understand the Government’s decision to introduce the current lockdown in England. And, as an industry, we continue to do all we can to support the response to Covid-19 as people, businesses and the wider country rely on connectivity to conduct business and stay in touch with family and friends. But further lockdown measures in Scotland and Northern Ireland means withholding access to immediate service and support, only available through our stores, for more customers.

Eleven local authorities in Scotland are currently under Level 4 restrictions until December 11, which includes only retailers classed as “essential” remaining open. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland faces a two-week lockdown from Friday, which covers all retailers classed as “non-essential”.

Many retailers, including off licenses and hardware shops, have been permitted to remain open. But telco high street stores, so often a lifeline for keeping the communities they serve connected, have been forced to temporarily close. It means customers in areas under lockdown restrictions can, for example, still pick up a nice bottle of red from an "essential retailer", but can't stop by one of our stores – each with its own strict social distancing standards and safety measures – to fix a connection issue they might have with their phone or broadband line.

Between us, the UK’s major communications providers have more than 1,500 stores on England’s high streets alone. We estimate that one million service enquiries and issues will have gone unresolved by the time the current four-week lockdown in England ends (around 30,000 per day). That’s because customers are unable to make use of services including:

  • Instant SIM replacement to keep customers connected in the event a SIM card stops working

  • Instant phone issue diagnostic and fix, in the event phone software malfunctions

  • Instant trade-in credit for a customer’s old device for those who are financially vulnerable

  • Guaranteed customer service time slots (via appointments) for those juggling work and family commitments

  • One-to-one, personal help for customers dealing with recent bereavement or financial difficulty

With around one in five UK households being ‘mobile-only’ according to Ofcom, many of these customers might therefore struggle to get back online quickly at a time when remaining digitally connected has never been more important.

Our stores are particularly important in supporting our vulnerable customers. Since re-opening earlier in the year, we have seen an increase in visits from vulnerable customers. They require a face-to-face service and include elderly customers who have low or no digital literacy. For example, for the 55+ age group, more than 50% of them prefer to use stores, with less than 20% comfortable using online services or call centres to get a new device. Think, too, of frontline workers needing immediate support – a new SIM card or device repair to stay connected.

We know it's a tough time for the high street at the moment. We all want to play our part in the retail sector’s recovery and we are proud to be part of, and support, as many communities across the UK as we can.

More than that, we simply want to help everyone stay connected. To that end, all of the UK’s major communications providers’ stores must be classed as essential retailers and permitted to re-open. That will ensure we can meet the service and support needs of all our customers, particularly those who need it most, no matter who their service is provided by.

Marc Allera is CEO of BT’s Consumer brands. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @marcallera