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The Minister said: “I want to thank our telecoms companies for their efforts during this challenging time, when we have seen a significant rise in demand across the sector. I am particularly grateful to the engineers who play such a pivotal role in keeping people connected, especially those isolated by illness and those categorised as vulnerable to this terrible virus. The work of the engineers in maintaining the telecoms infrastructure at this time is invaluable to us all and should be respected, and any intimidation of staff is not acceptable.

“Engineers are continuing to ensure we are able to stay connected during this time of social distancing. Without them we wouldn’t be able to call our love ones, access vital online information and stay in touch with friends via social media.”

Commenting on the recent vandalism of a mast in Belfast and rumours linking the spread of COVID-19 to the roll-out of 5G, the Minister added: “I am very concerned that there are some who are making false claims that COVID-19 is in some way linked to 5G technology. By continuing to circulate these unfounded claims they not only fuel anxieties but also fuel an environment in which acts of arson and the abuse of telecoms engineers doing their jobs is becoming more common.”

The Minister warned: “Nothing can be achieved by such actions. At a time when the importance of telecommunications has never been so prominent, this criminal damage and intimidation will only increase the difficulties faced by our community. I would ask those responsible to think of their community, particularly those who live alone, for whom telecoms services represent their only contact with family, friends and neighbours at this very difficult time.”