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Huawei to be stripped of role in UK’s 5G network by 2027, Dowden confirms

Huawei is to be stripped out of Britain’s 5G phone networks by 2027, a date that puts Boris Johnson on collision course with a group of Conservative rebels who want the Chinese company eliminated quicker and more comprehensively.

Oliver Dowden, the UK culture secretary, also announced that no new Huawei 5G kit can be bought after 31 December this year – but disappointed the rebels by saying that older 2G, 3G and 4G kit can remain until it is no longer needed.

The minister declared that the UK will be on an “irreversible path” to eliminating “high-risk vendors” such as Huawei in 5G by the time of the next general election in 2024, in attempt to placate some MPs.

But rebel leader Iain Duncan Smith, said there were contradictions in Dowden’s statement. “So if there are risks in 5G why are they not a risk to us generally,” the former party leader said, and called on the minister “to ban Huawei altogether”.

In reply, the culture secretary said that “the reality of the 5G network is that it is fundamentally different” and added that “in turn 5G will be replaced by 6G and in all of that Huawei will be absent”.

The minister also told MPs that the changes he was announcing would mean “a cumulative delay to 5G roll out of two to three years and costs of up to £2bn” – costs that could in theory be passed on in bills to consumers.

The decision represents an enforced U-turn on a previous decision to allow Huawei to supply 35% of the UK’s 5G equipment, and a compromise with BT and Vodafone, who warned there could be phone “outages” if they were forced to act sooner.

It follows the announcement in May of further US sanctions against Huawei, preventing it from using microchips from American suppliers.

Downing Street then asked the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the spy agency GCHQ, to review Huawei’s security and said its equipment could not be considered safe if it had to rely on non-US components. “The sanctions were a gamechanger,” a Whitehall official said.

Donald Trump’s national security adviser made clear the US president’s approval of the decision. Robert O’Brien said: “The reported UK action reflects a growing international consensus that Huawei and other untrusted vendors pose a threat to national security, as they remain beholden to the Chinese Communist party.

“We look forward to working with the UK, as well as our many other partners and allies, to spur innovation, promote vendor diversity in the 5G supply chain, and ensure 5G security free from dangerous manipulations.”

China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, tweeted: “Disappointing and wrong decision by the UK on Huawei. It has become questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries.”

Despite the UK retreat on Huawei, the Conservative rebels believe the telecoms firm still represents an immediate national security risk and want the UK to follow the US and Australia, which have implemented more complete bans.

The rebel MPs say they number about 60, theoretically enough to defeat the government, if the opposition parties join forces with them. They want Huawei removed from existing 3G and 4G networks as well as 5G by 2026 at the latest.

A rebel source said: “The fight is back on. The telecoms infrastructure bill will face amendments to ban 3G and 4G on the same basis as 5G and to bring forward the end date for equipment. We are confident that they will be successful.”

If Johnson does not go further, their plan is to amend the telecoms security bill intended to legislate for the two-part ban on Huawei. That was due to emerge before the summer recess but has been pushed back until the autumn.

Huawei UK urged the government to reconsider, and said the UK would be economically damaged if it pressed ahead.

Ed Brewster, a spokesperson for the company, said: “This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide.”

The prime minister has become embroiled in an intense geopolitical row over Huawei, in which the US president, Donald Trump, has demanded the Chinese company be kicked out of the UK, claiming it poses a long-term security risk.

Officials also want Huawei to be removed from high-speed, full-fibre connections following a two-year transition period, working with companies to find a way of eliminating the Chinese company’s equipment.

No compensation is expected to be paid to BT, Vodafone or Huawei. BT’s chief executive had said on Monday it would be possible to remove Huawei from 5G in five years – but warned that it would be impossible to remove older equipment entirely within 10 years.

Huawei denies it has ever been asked to engage in any spying on behalf of the Chinese state, while Beijing says Johnson’s decision will be an acid test of the relationship that had developed under David Cameron, marking an end to the so-called “golden era” of UK-China ties.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said before the announcement: “Whether the UK will provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese businesses offers a telling clue to how the post-Brexit British market will perform and how secure China’s investment will be in that country. So, we will be closely following the situation.”

British-Chinese relations have grown increasingly strained over the last month as the UK has condemned a controversial national security law forced on Hong Kong. China has threatened “countermeasures” against the UK if it fulfils a promise to offer a path to residency to British national overseas passport holders in Hong Kong, a way to help persecuted democracy activists and protesters.

A few minutes before the announcement was made on Tuesday, Huawei said the former BP boss Lord Browne would be stepping down as chairman of its board of directors from September. Browne, who had held the post for five years, did not say he was quitting but the company thanked him for “his valuable contribution”.