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14 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 5:35am

A year of listening: The quiet rise of the phone call

Since Covid-19 began to spread, we have been ringing each other more and for longer, according to new figures from Ofcom.

By Anoosh Chakelian

After the Blitz in the Second World War, much of the historic street of Cheapside in the City of London was destroyed. One of the buildings that remained undamaged was a jeweller and pawn broker owned by William Battersby.

There is an extraordinary photo of it taken in around 1940, standing unscathed on a street corner among the rubble – the MK Simmons & Co menswear shop next door completely bombed out aside from its shop sign. Grey figures with bowed heads pick through the damage.

Those premises, on 147 Cheapside, are now occupied by luxury beauty brand Space NK. I only found out about Battersby during lockdown phone calls with my grandmother. It was where she chose her engagement ring. In a recent chat, she wondered what had become of the jewellers that survived against the odds and was spared from the Luftwaffe to sell her a ring.

Before they were married, she and my grandfather used to meet halfway between their workplaces during lunchbreaks at a spot on the Embankment to have their sandwiches by the Thames, a short distance from where I now work at the New Statesman office. On one of those meet-ups, they decided to go engagement ring shopping among the bombed-out businesses – Cheapside was still being rebuilt in the Fifties and Sixties.

Anecdotes like these, which tell the story of a London so distant from my own but a London life so strangely familiar, are new to me. Perhaps visiting Nana pre-pandemic lent itself more to catching up than reminiscing, but I feel I’ve learnt a lot from picking up the phone and idly chatting more often than I used to.

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I’m not the only one. People have been speaking more on the phone in the past year.

[See also: Mourning and melancholia: the psychological shadow-pandemic]

Total call volumes in the UK were 15 per cent (six billion minutes) higher in 2020 than in 2019, “largely due to changing usage patterns during the Covid-19 pandemic”, according to the latest Ofcom report released at the end of April. On mobile, call minutes increased by 16.4 per cent (that’s a whopping 6.8 billion minutes more of chatting) and calls to landlines increased by 20.8 per cent (10.6 billion minutes) on last year.

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There was a similar trend in the US, with the New York Times reporting last April that telecoms providers prepped for a huge shift towards internet use saw a greater rise in traditional phone calls.

Last June, when UK businesses began reopening after the first lockdown, there was a surge in customer calls, with some sectors experiencing 80 per cent more calls than usual, according to the receptionist provider Moneypenny (which clearly has an interest in such a trend, but still).

“Why is the humble phone call still more effective than online automation or social media?” the company asked. “In times of crisis, people return to what they know best. They want the reassurance that they are being heard and understood. And the phone call is still the most powerful way to satisfy this need.”

We may think we’re living in the age of Zoom, but the rather more retro voice call is making a comeback.

Such calls go beyond guilty Mother’s Day catch-ups or nattering to fill the boredom of your daily neighbourhood lockdown walk. My colleague Sarah Manavis wrote movingly last June about repairing her relationship with her sister during lockdown phone calls.

And every Sunday evening at 6pm, Emma Randle and nine other call handlers log into their accounts at the Samaritans central London branch. As soon as they begin their shift, the first calls come in.

Over the course of the evening, Randle will usually have time to take three or four calls and respond to messages to the email helpline – all from people in need of emotional support. She finishes her shift at 10.30pm.

For 15 years, Randle has been taking calls for the Samaritans – a charity that has been available 24/7 to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide since the Fifties.

In February last year, not long before lockdown was declared on 23 March, she began to notice something different. Some callers were mentioning news of a new virus spreading.

“I think there was a lot of fear and uncertainty, and obviously people feeling extremely concerned about their own personal wellbeing, physical wellbeing,” she recalls. “The stories on the news were relentless, they were very upsetting particularly for people who had been distanced from their family members.”

Over a year into the pandemic, she estimates that about one in five callers have mentioned Covid-19 and the impact it is having on their lives. After the initial fear of the unknown disease itself came financial woes, mental ill health, relationship difficulties, uncertainty about the future and feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“I think the lockdown and the lack of social contact became apparent, particularly as you reached significant moments in the year like Christmas,” Randle observes.

Data shows a rise in crisis calls during lockdown, including to domestic abuse and mental health helplines. The mental health charity Mind reported last November that it was receiving double the usual volume of calls some days that month, and the official domestic abuse helpline run by the charity Refuge had a 61 per cent spike in calls in a peak last summer.

The Samaritans finds the number of calls it has received during this crisis are similar to the previous year. Yet a year after the social distancing restrictions began, volunteers like Randle had responded to nearly 400,000 emails to the address– a 32 per cent increase, which volunteers say is due to callers cooped up indoors “finding it difficult to talk on the phone in private”, according to a Samaritans spokesperson.

Even so, the power of having another voice at the end of the line spread far and wide. “We may have had people reaching out to us who may not have done before,” reflects Randle on the calls she’s received. “There’s lots of people who may never have felt anxiety before and are maybe feeling things for the first time that they’re not quite sure what to do with.”

From Facetime funerals to virtual marathons, the pandemic has transformed the way we connect. Yet amid the rush to communicate in as many ways as possible without human contact, it’s the classic phone call that has endured.

[See also: How we misunderstand depression]