VIRGIN Media has apologised to elderly customers after a landline outage left them unable to contact two vital UK Government numbers during winter.
Pensioners in and around Edinburgh were cut off from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Helpline and the government’s Warm Home Discount Scheme Helpline for more than a month due to the error.
Disgruntled customers say complaints to the media giant made back in December were ignored, leaving them without a “vital lifeline”.
Virgin Media has since apologised to its customers, after Age Scotland’s chief executive branded the outage “concerning”.
Throughout December and January, both government numbers were reachable from landlines provided by other telecom companies, but Virgin customers faced frustration and were greeted with a pre-recorded message saying: “Sorry, this number is not recognised.”
The technical blunder meant pensioners needing to contact the Warm Home Discount Scheme were also unable to do so, meaning crucial payments could not be set up in the middle of winter.
Those receiving their state pension through Post Office accounts had also been encouraged to phone the DWP for support setting up bank accounts to ensure they can continue to receive payments.
The government’s contract with the Post Office runs out in November 2021 meaning pensioners will require a bank account to collect their money.
Margaret Douglas, from Edinburgh, described the situation as a “nightmare”.
The 72-year-old said: “I noticed the problem in early December as I had been trying to get through for hours.
“Virgin advised me to buy a new phone and told me to take it back if the numbers still didn’t work so I did. Needless to say using a new phone handset made no difference.
“It was a total nightmare. I asked six or seven friends and relatives in the Edinburgh area to try and get through and they couldn’t.
“I’m really frustrated, I have now got information from BT because I am thinking of switching as a result of this.”
Ms Douglas added: “The call centre staff could only be described as dismissive.
“I explained to them this was affecting older people looking for help with their pensions and winter payments. I can still hardly believe they told me to buy a new phone.”
Another customer, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “I reported this to Virgin over the weekend of Dec 15/16 – a process which involved me being on hold to their various call centres for close to four hours.
“I also reported it to Virgin in the UK via Twitter – lodging my complaint with them on Dec 17. Again, I heard nothing back from them.”
The outage caused concern for Age Scotland, who say phone access has been a lifeline during the pandemic.
Chief executive Brian Sloan said: “A huge number of older people rely on landlines to make calls and access services.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, telephone helplines have been a lifeline for those shielding, living alone or simply spending more time at home and it’s vital that everyone can contact them when needed – regardless of whether they’re using a mobile or landline telephone to do so.
“The reports of numbers for the DWP and Warm Home Discount helpline being inaccessible through Virgin Media landlines is concerning, particularly just after entering a second national lockdown and during this period of extremely cold weather.
“We hope that Virgin Media will further investigate this issue, as it may be affecting a larger number of older people who may not realise until they need to access these numbers urgently.”
Since being contacted by the press, Virgin Media has managed to fix the problem, which was apparently caused by a third party technical fault.
A Virgin Media spokesman said: “We have resolved a technical fault which prevented access to these phone numbers for a small number of customers in Edinburgh and some of the surrounding areas, and we apologise for the inconvenience caused.”