Coronavirus: The challenge for critical national infrastructure

This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (31.03.20).

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted concern about critical national infrastructure, such as the telecoms, energy, and water networks. Critical infrastructure providers are required to have practiced emergency plans in place. Some workers in these sectors have been designated as “critical”.

This Insight examines the issues faced, and action being taken, by critical infrastructure providers during the pandemic.

This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (31.03.20).

Will home broadband networks be overloaded?

The pandemic means more people are working from home, home schooling and streaming online entertainment. This has led people to ask – can broadband networks cope with increases in home use? In response to concerns, YouTube, Amazon and Netflix have all lowered the quality of their video streaming services in Europe, including the UK. Netflix stated their changes would reduce data consumption by 25% across Europe.

Providers have explained that their networks are built with “headroom” to withstand increases in use. BT explained on 20 March that it had seen a 35-60% increase in daytime traffic across its network. That increase only amounted to around half the average evening traffic on a regular day. Evening usage is usually higher due to people streaming video content. Vodafone’s Chief Technology Officer has explained how they can add capacity and manage demand to respond to changes.

Experts monitoring broadband download speeds say there has not been a significant change in speeds received overall. It is possible that some people, depending on their connection, may experience slower speeds due to localised issues (as happens during other busy times). Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, has published tips for how to ensure broadband connections work as best as possible. The National Cyber Security Centre is urging business and the public to follow their guidance on staying safe online while home working to protect against cyber attacks.

What about mobile networks?

Some isolated service issues in the last two weeks have prompted concerns about the capacity of mobile networks to manage changes in customer use during the pandemic. BT and Vodafone say they have seen an increase in mobile voice calls but a reduction in mobile data use. techUK, a trade body for technology companies, explained how companies are making changes to their networks to respond. Mobile UK, the trade body for UK mobile operators, states that networks “have more than enough capacity” to handle the added demand.

The main impact on the telecoms industry is expected to be from staff shortages, impacting customer service and engineering visits. Ofcom is taking a “pragmatic” approach to regulation during this time recognising the challenges on the industry. The Government and Ofcom are working with and supporting broadband and mobile operators to ensure services remain resilient.

Energy – will the lights stay on?

No shortages or cuts of energy are expected due to the pandemic. Energy network operators have said Britain has “one of the most reliable energy networks in the world”.

National Grid, who operate the UK’s transmission network, predict that the pandemic will cause energy demand to fall. Recent analysis suggests that mass isolation has caused around a 10% fall in electricity demand. This is because the reduction in industrial and commercial demand is greater than the increase in domestic demand as people stay at home.

Control rooms from where the network is balanced are also said to not be at risk of interruption. National Grid have resilience and security measures in place and fully operational back-up locations.

The pandemic could have wider impacts on the future of UK energy infrastructure, including:

The energy regulator Ofgem has said that they expect companies to prioritise customer and staff safety. Like Ofcom, Ofgem say they will be pragmatic about wider regulation. However on some issues, such as pricing regulation and the safety of workers, stakeholders have reportedly said that more decisive action may need to be taken by Ofgem and the networks.

Will there be water shortages?

The pandemic is not expected to result in problems to water supply. Water UK, the trade body for the water industry in England and Wales, states it is “confident the water industry will continue to provide clean, safe and reliable drinking water for everyone”. The Drinking Water Inspectorate has confirmed that water supplies are safe to drink and there is no evidence that the virus is transmitted via water supplies.

Water companies are concerned that shortages of toilet paper may cause people to use alternatives such as wet wipes or kitchen roll that are not flushable. Companies are urging customers not to flush anything other than the “three Ps” (pee, poo and toilet paper) to reduce the risk of sewer blockages and flooding at an already challenging time.

Customer support

Customers who are concerned about paying their telecoms, energy, or water bills, should contact their suppliers who may be able to offer support. The Government has already announced a package of support for customers struggling with energy bills during the pandemic.

Further reading

Electricity Grids, House of Commons Library

Water bills: affordability and support for household customers, House of Commons Library


About the authors: Suzanna Hinson and Georgina Hutton are researchers at the House of Commons Library, specialising in energy, science and the environment.