Vodafone knows an opportunity when it sees one. In the UK the government has just provided a free 0800 number for worried Brits to call for advice on the H1N1 swine flu that is sweeping the country. Three out of the Big Four UK mobile operators have had the good sense to allow calls made from mobile handsets to the hotline also to be free. Not Vodafone though, it's charging 20 pence per minute, reports Martyn Warwick.
The profiteering story broke as, co-incidentally, Vodafone released its figures for Q1 2009, ended June 30 this year. The brief, one-page bullet-pointed missive shows that Vodafone's revenues were up 9.3 per cent at £10.73 billion.
Vodafone's Chief Executive, Vittorio Colao says, “In the first quarter the service revenue trend in Europe was consistent with the previous quarter and we continued to see good growth in India and South Africa. Our total communications strategy is delivering well, with organic data
revenue up 19 per cent and organic fixed line revenue 7 per cent ahead of the comparative period. Free cash flow generation was strong at £1.9 billion, up 21%. The Group has reaffirmed its guidance for the full year.”
I'm sure all the worried people seeking advice and help from the National Pandemic Flu Service will be pleased for him.
Notwithstanding that many sections of the media have been doing their best to foment and fan public hysteria over the swine flu outbreak, and despite the fact that the vast majority of those who do get infected suffer only mild symptoms, official figures show that more than 100,000 Brits caught the H1N1 virus in the last week - double the number reported in the week before.
Not surprisingly, given the evident growing panic, huge volumes of calls are being made to doctors surgeries, hospitals and the original National Health Service hotline as people ask for advice and help about how to cope with the swine flu and how to treat it.
Indeed the tsunami of calls has reached the level of such a perfect storm that the UK authorities have be compelled to set up a special number in the hope that it will take the strain off the rest of the health service and that it can continue in its normal way.
Vodafone has about 19 million subscribers in the UK and it's not known how many of them have or will wish to contact the hotline from their handsets but its bound to be a lot - and that converts to a nice little earner for the mobile network operator.
Calling an 0800 number from a landline is free. Calls to 0800 numbers from a mobile are not, indeed charges can be as high as 40 pence per minute. However, Vodafone's major competitors, O2, Orange and T-Mobile have (without, it must be admitted, any particular fuss or obvious efforts to benefit from any PR spin) decided that the situation is so serious it warrants them waiving charges for connection to the 0800 number. Not cash-strapped Vodafone though - it wants the money.
Such is the public concern that the new service is being overwhelmed (it fell apart within minutes of its going operational yestarday afternoon) and even when it later creaked back into life it was taking callers an average of between 15 and 20 minutes to get through to it. If you are a Vodafone subscriber it means your socially aware and responsible service provider is racking up between £3 and £4 a call. Now that's a giant rip-off.
Michael Summers, vice-chairman of the Patients’ Association, put it rather more diplomatically, but what he said means the same thing. He said, "This is a singularly insensitive and inappropriate to be making money. I am surprised when the Government assured us that this helpline would be free for callers because of their anxieties over their health, and surprised that any of the phone companies would think of making a charge, especially at this particular time, which is causing so much anguish.”
Not that Vodafone give a hoot. LIke the man said, money doesn't talk, it screams.
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