Residents of the Nidderdale villages in North Yorkshire have been struggling with little to no mobile phone reception for several years. This ongoing frustration has now reached breaking point, with residents eligible for the Covid-19 vaccination not receiving text messages from their GP regarding their appointments.
The poor mobile phone reception is affecting the villages from Pateley Bridge and Galphay through to Kirkby Malzeard, Grewelthorpe, and outside of Masham, with many not having Wi-Fi calling options or signal boosters at home.
Poor reception in Nidderdale
Frances Cole, who has been dealing with this problem since she moved to Mickley six years ago, told us that, “A couple of 80-year-olds had gone into the surgery to collect their medications, and were told by their GP that they’d been texting them for their covid vaccine for around a week but with no reply”.
These patients who missed their covid vaccine appointment via text message lived near Galphay. Yet this is only three miles away from the nearest mast in Kirkby Malzeard. Kirkby Malzeard now has a mobile mast, used by NHS health centres in rural areas, but it only covers a three-mile radius – a fraction of the 14-mile area – thus failing to reach patients in Galphay and Mickley.
Frances had emailed local MP Julian Smith of Ripon and Skipton, asking if he could look into provisions as soon as possible, as “we pay for a mobile phone service which we never receive. It is a technical issue for providing bigger booster to the signal”. Julian’s vague response what that he would send a copy of Frances’ email to the secretary for digital, culture, media and sport.
Patricia Harling, the parish councillor of Mickley added:
“In 2013/2014 there was an application to install a mast just outside the village at Tower Hill [in Mickley] but the application was withdrawn as there was no finance available”.
Vulnerable residents left with no means of communication
This lack of clarity over how and when this problem will be solved has meant that villagers with no mobile phone reception are increasingly fearful that they are missing all kinds of important communications. Text messaging is becoming the default communication channel for sending private data such as bank details and verification codes, and Frances explained how it has felt next to impossible to carry out essential daily activities.
“I have to go out of my house in the rain and snow to get a verification code, or transfer money up the road. Even if you have your phone switched on you will not get the text. For three months I had no Wi-Fi calling and had to walk up the field just to talk on the mobile phone, so imagine not even having a landline and you couldn’t rely on your mobile phone either.”
However, Patricia Harling suggests that the signal problems have not significantly affected the vaccine rollout so far. “A number of residents over the age of 80 have already received their first vaccine – I am not aware of anyone not receiving any message at all offering them a vaccine.”
Nigel Peacock of North House Surgery in Ripon says that they have instead been contacting patients via landline if they can’t get through on mobile phone, which hasn’t affected their vaccine rollout. Otherwise, GPs are having to contact patients via less-immediate communication such as when they pick up prescriptions or sending letters.
Missing vaccine texts are just the tip of the iceberg
“The vaccination texts are the tip of the iceberg” of this ongoing problem. “It appears as if neither the mobile phone companies nor the government can be bothered to install signal boosters for the villages”.
This will not be a unique situation to Nidderdale, as this problem will be occurring in other rural constituencies, where there is not an adequate connection either.
The UK’s major mobile phone and internet service providers are working with the government and OFCOM to offer packages that will help the country stay connected during this difficult time. This includes the commitment that “All providers will ensure that vulnerable customers or those self-isolating receive alternative methods of communication wherever possible if priority repairs to fixed broadband and landlines cannot be carried out”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the problem of what happens in areas with no signal.
In the 2019 general election campaign, Labour made a manifesto commitment to invest £20bn and give every home and business in the UK free broadband by 2030, with a focus on smaller communities who are the worst affected by poor connection. This would have enabled WiFi calling in areas with no mobile signal. It was scoffed at by the Conservatives. Nidderdale provides just one example of the difference broadband access and signal boosts would make for vulnerable people – whether it’s for children remote learning, adults working from home, or the clinically vulnerable waiting for their Covid-19 vaccines.