Bumbling BT put my life on the line

Cancer patient Martin Booth tells of his frustrating battle to get a vital phone link reconnected in the face of incompetence
Four weeks ago, I underwent brain surgery for a massive, malignant cancerous tumour on the right side of my head. In early October I was told I had perhaps six months to live, if the dice fell my way.

Now, with three 20p piece-sized holes and umpteen metal pins in my cranium, a daily dose of radioactivity sufficient to illuminate a small village and enough medication to fell a pachyderm, I need to be able to summon medical attention at the drop of a parietal bone. Yet this is impossible, not because of any failings in the NHS, but because of the inefficiency and shortcomings of BT.

My home telephone line, along with those of several neighbours, stopped working 10 days ago until late last Wednesday. I do have a mobile phone, but since I can rarely get a signal where I live, the landline is crucial. At first I was told by a BT faults manager that it was the result of the failure of an underground cable. I live in rural Devon where there are no underground lines, certainly none for a few miles around my home.

Then I was informed that there was no hydraulic platform available for the repair crew to reach the top of the pole — from which, presumably, the errant subterranean cable was suspended. In fact, a hoist was readily available, and a ladder would have sufficed in any case.

I had to make my complaints from a payphone two miles away from my home, but I can’t say it was a relief when I eventually did speak to a human being since I was never able to get hold of the same one twice. Conversations with “Tracey in Newport”, “Sophie in Grimsby”, an anonymous Scotswoman and “Ben and Patrick in Exeter”, not to mention a “Mr Martin” of the “complaints review staff” in the chairman’s office (charged at the full national rate) resulted in many broken promises.

I was given cast-iron assurances that the repair would be given medical priority that day (it wasn’t) or put ahead of “even business lines” in the priority repair programme (again, it wasn’t).

One operator even had the cheek to suggest I tried BT’s total care plan, which guarantees a 24-hour helpline and a speedy response to problems. There would be, of course, a fee. I acceded, but have yet to be sent an application form.

I was then told by an anonymous operator to register the fault online via the BT website — presumably telepathically. Even letters to Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman, elicited no response. Umpteen promises to call me back on my mobile telephone and report on the situation have gone the way of the black Bakelite handset into oblivion.

And so, nightly, my wife and I lay in bed wondering if I’d see the dawn. On one of my daily visits to hospital, I was told that, if I suffered another severe headache during the night (as has recently been the case, now that the radiation treatment is well under way) I must telephone my doctor. The headache could be the tumour reasserting itself or a reaction to the radiotherapy. In addition, I am likely to be prone to post-surgical epileptic fits that require paramedic attention.

Several years ago, in the Siwalik foothills of the Himalayas, I was able to place a call from the old Raj hill station of Nainital to Hong Kong and London via Delhi during a blizzard, with not even a crackle on the line. The month before last, I called a friend in western Texas from a payphone in Narok, a small flyblown town of mud and corrugated iron dukas in Kenya, and was connected straight away.

BT recently said it wanted to have “a relentless focus on customer satisfaction” and a current advertising campaign slogan says it is making “100% effort”. When will BT start to heed its ridiculous mission statements, honour its stated standards charter and provide this country with a communications network worthy of a 21st-century industrialised society? And when will somebody who works for BT, other than the engineers who climb the poles in all weathers and are a sterling group of usually cold, rain-soaked men, start to exhibit a sense of social or corporate responsibility? Both questions seem as unfathomable as when the next hydraulic platform will become available.

No offer of compensation nor reimbursement of mobile calls was made, despite the assurance by a manager that this is customary practice and someone would contact me immediately.

After BT discovered I was writing this article I was offered the princely sum of #12. (By the way, BT, when the cheque is eventually issued, please make it payable to CLIC, the children’s cancer charity, and send it to me so I can be sure it reaches its intended destination.) A spokesman also released a statement to The Sunday Times saying: “BT regrets the fact that Mr Booth was without a working telephone for six days and would like to apologise. Unfortunately, the fault was a rare and difficult one to identify. Gunshots had damaged the overhead cables in the area. BT has referred the matter to the local police.” This sounds uncannily like “leaves on the line” and does not alter the fact that it took six days to repair the fault.

As for me, forget broadband or fibre optics. I just want an ordinary copper telephone line and guaranteed access to 999.