Islanders on Shetland face being without landline telephones, mobile and internet services until Saturday after a crucial subsea cable link with the mainland was cut.
Police on Shetland declared a major incident and were patrolling the island to reassure residents after the cable was dredged up by a UK-registered trawler on Thursday morning. Engineers are working to reroute some services using other networks.
UK government officials said the outage was due to accidental damage to the cable by a UK-registered trawler, an incident which is now being investigated by the authorities.
Maggie Sandison, the chief executive of Shetland Islands council, said the emergency was likely to last until Saturday, although some landlines and internet services – running via a Faroe Islands link – were still working.
The council’s landline services were down; flights from Sumburgh airport in the far south of Shetland’s main island were still operating on Thursday but all its network and mobile links at the airport had failed.
Ch Insp Jane Mackenzie, of Police Scotland, told BBC Radio Scotland people should check on elderly or vulnerable neighbours in case their assistance alarms were not working, and to avoid using telephones for non-urgent calls.
She said 999 lines and some landlines and mobile services were still operational.
“So anyone calling 999 should be able to do so from a mobile phone,” she said. “What we would ask is if you have an emergency you should first try a landline or mobile to call 999.
“If that doesn’t work, you should flag down an emergency service vehicle that isn’t using their blue light or attend either a police station, hospital, fire or ambulance station to report the emergency.”
Supt David Ross said Police Scotland was sending extra officers to Shetland and had set up an emergency hub in the Tesco supermarket car park in Lerwick. Engineers were working urgently to restore or divert services, he added.
A spokesperson for BT said: “Due to a break in a third-party subsea cable connecting Shetland with the Scottish mainland, some phone, broadband and mobile services are affected.
“Engineers are working to divert services via other routes as soon as possible and we’ll provide further updates. Our external subsea provider is also looking to restore their link quickly. Anyone who needs to call 999 should try their landline or their mobile, even if they don’t have signal from their own mobile provider. We’re sorry for any inconvenience.”
Beatrice Wishart, the MSP for Shetland, said the crisis raised fresh questions about the islands’ vulnerability. “My constituents are understandably concerned by the news this morning. There is an extremely limited telephone and broadband service, which has huge repercussions for families and businesses across the islands,” she said.
“This kind of disruption points to the fundamental vulnerability of our current island infrastructure. We need long-term changes to create a resilient service that can guarantee residents connectivity, reliability and safety.”
The incident follows damage to another subsea cable connecting Shetland with the Faroe Islands last week, which is due to be repaired on Saturday.
Páll Vesturbú, the head of infrastructure for Faroese Telecom, said the damage was probably caused by a trawler. “We expect it will be fishing vessels that damaged the cable but it is very rare that we have two problems at the same time,” he said.
In 2020, about 18,000 homes in the Western Isles lost power after a 20-mile-long subsea power cable to the mainland was severed. The power company Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks had to call on a diesel-fuelled power station in Stornoway and emergency generators to provide backup power.