A number of phone masts in the UK have been set on fire amid false rumours circulating of insidious connections between coronavirus and 5G.
Vodafone UK's chief executive Nick Jeffrey said on Sunday that "vandals" had carried out a "series of arson attacks" on masts around the country, and that some of the company's engineers had been abused in the street.
"This is a matter of national security," he said, adding that theories of links between COVID-19 and 5G networks were "utterly baseless".
"It beggars belief that some people should want to harm the very networks that are providing essential connectivity to the emergency services, the NHS, and rest of the country during this difficult lockdown period," he said.
Jeffrey made his comments following reports last week of British fire services attending a number of mast fires around the country, while alleged video footage of at least one of the blazes was shared on social media.
The claims linking coronavirus and 5G have been spreading rapidly across on and offline networks in recent days, with celebrities also being criticised for pitching in.
US actor Woody Harrelson shared a post on Instagram that linked 5G to the pandemic, while TV personality Jason Gardiner suggested the World Health Organization had warned against the mobile network due to the illness.
British boxer Amir Khan also got involved in a series of Instagram videos in which he suggested the disease was "man-made" and had been "put there for a reason – while they test 5G."
Speaking to the rumours Jeffrey added: "Online stories connecting the spread of coronavirus to 5G are utterly baseless. Please don’t share them on social media – fake news can have serious consequences."
UK mobile network providers later released a joint statement saying the vandalism and abuse had, in some cases, prevented essential work being carried out.
"Sadly, we have experienced cases of vandals setting fire to mobile masts, disrupting critical infrastructure and spreading false information suggesting a connection between 5G and the COVID-19 pandemic," the joint statement from Vodafone, Three, O2 and EE said.
It added: "There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus. Fact.
"Not only are these claims baseless, they are harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services.
"They have also led to the abuse of our engineers, and, in some cases, prevented essential network maintenance taking place."
At the UK's daily government conference on coronavirus, Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove said the rumours were "just nonsense, dangerous nonsense as well," while Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England, dismissed the claims as "the worst kind of fake news."
He said: "I'm absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted, that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency."
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5G is a wireless mobile network that was deployed in 2019 to improve telecommunications and mobile connectivity beyond existing 4G and 3G networks.
There have been concerns over whether the new network could be linked to cancer due to the wave frequencies it uses, but no evidence has yet been found.
According to the World Health Organization, which has a detailed guide on the mobile network,"no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies", even after "much research" was carried out.
It noted that only a few studies had been carried out on the frequencies used by 5G, but "provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated."