The use of amateur radio in the UK has seen a “significant” increase during the coronavirus lockdown as people seek new ways to stay connected. The national organization that represents users – the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB) – said that many people who enjoy leisure also come back to it.
Mark Rider’s social life before the coronavirus closed consisted of an occasional trip to the pub, rehearsal with musician friends and a visit to his wife in his care home.
“But when I knew it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, I decided to dust off my amateur radio equipment to look for another social interaction,” he said.
Mr. Rider, a retired engineer from North Warwickshire, said that “making waves” – or chatting with people on the air – “became one of the highlights of my day.”
“Because I live alone and because of the lockdown, I knew I couldn’t do what I was doing, which was not going to be very good for me or my sanity.”
The 67-year-old says that staying in touch with others has been more important since his wife was taken care of after a stroke.
“Just talking to someone else in the same situation is very rewarding,” he says.
The RSGB defines amateur radio as “a technical pastime for people who want to know, use and experience wireless communications”, like Mr. Rider, who uses his radio kit to talk to others using designated radio frequencies.
Steve Thomas, executive director of RSGB, says the organization has seen a threefold increase in the number of people applying for licensing exams since the social distancing rules came into effect. There are currently around 75,000 licensed users in the UK.
“Across the country, clubs and individual radio amateurs are supporting each other by setting up” nets “or online meetings,” said Mr. Thomas.
Anne-Marie Rowland held meetings twice a week to help keep people in touch.
The 11-year-old from Leedstown near Hayle in Cornwall, who has been licensed for about a year, established transmissions with the Cornish Amateur Radio Club to help keep people in touch during the lockout.
“We have regulars but also new people,” she says.
Papa Bill, who also hosts a weekly meeting, says “we are always available with the radio on, there are a lot of seniors who are self-isolating, so it helps them to feel connected.”
Amateur radio users have also shown their support for the NHS by adding “/ NHS” as an extension to their call signs and by participating in a “Get on the air to care” (# GOTA2C) campaign, aimed at support the emotional health and well-being of the radiocommunication community.
An amateur radio call sign, issued by the Government Office of Communication (Ofcom), is a series of letters and numbers specific to each radio operator and allows enthusiasts to identify themselves and establish which country they are in.
Paul Devlin, of the NHS Emergency Improvement Support Team, launched the campaign in an “unprecedented” partnership with the RSGB, whose National Radio Center is based in Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes.
He was responsible for the creation of the health service GB1NHS amateur radio station.
“The NHS is the only government organization that regularly uses amateur radio to help improve the lives of communities around the world,” he said.
“We want the radio operators to just go on the air, get in touch with their passionate classmates and see how they are doing,” said the 55-year-old from Lichfield, Staffordshire.
“Being such a well recognized brand, every time GB1NHS is broadcast, we have queues of radio operators wishing to interact with our messages.”
Analysis by Jim Lee, BBC Radio announcer and news reader
I was first hooked by the magic of radio as a schoolboy in Nuneaton. I passed the necessary technical exam and Morse test and got my call sign (G4AEH) dangerously close to my level A exams.
Listening to pirate stations in the 60s made me want to work on the radio. When most of them were closed, listening to shortwave groups on a radio that my mother bought for me at a messy church sale brought me to amateur radio.
It was over 50 years ago and even though I spend a lot of time reading the news and presenting programs for the BBC, communicating worldwide with an antenna I made from a few pieces of wire is still part of the magic of radio.
Amateur radio is ideal for social distancing and it is not surprising that more and more people turn to it during this crisis. Social media and video calls are OK, but depend on the presence of sufficient Internet bandwidth for effective communication.
You can’t FaceTime the International Space Station, but there have been occasions when radio amateurs have been able to speak to astronauts via their radio sets in a hangar or back room.
The digital world and amateur radio can coexist. There’s no way the new kid in the block can replace the magic of talking to someone on the other side of the world with less power than it takes to operate a light bulb. It’s science in action.
The RSGB introduced remote monitoring in mid-April to allow people to pass their basic exam – the entry step for obtaining an amateur radio license.
Pete Sipple, 50, of Leigh-on-Sea, who runs the Essex Ham Amateur Radio Club with his wife Sarah, has been offering online training courses for the exam for some time, but has since said the lock of the coronavirus that it has seen a “massive” surge in demand.
“So far, 1,135 people have applied for a course this year, and due to demand from Covid, we are running two courses a month instead of one,” he said.
Ms. Sipple, 46, says she has noticed an increase in transmissions from people who haven’t been on the air very recently.
“Pete has received messages saying,” I haven’t used the radio for six or seven years, can you just help me get back to it? “”
Callum McCormick, a 61-year-old antenna maker, daily hosts an amateur radio wellness “network” for those over 65 from his home in Lapworth, Warwickshire. It has reached hundreds of users, and thousands more are watching via its YouTube channel.
“The oldest user who has been in contact is George, 101, from Dorchester, who just wanted to call us and tell him that he and his wife Ivy were being looked after by their daughter and that they were fine.”
McCormick says he was able to help a disabled, housebound user “who was on his last half cup of milk”.
“He had called and in the days I had timed, he needed help, so I managed to mobilize an answer for him to shop and he is now taken care of by the council,” said Mr. McCormick.
“I wanted to do something for the old boys who felt a little lost and isolated.”
Follow BBC West Midlands on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Send your article ideas to: