The internet and other digital technologies have helped many of us cope with lockdown, and new ways of working have quickly become commonplace. But the pandemic has also exposed the “digital divide” across the UK – and the fact that not everyone has access to a computer, tablet, laptop or smartphone – or has an internet connection in their home.
There is a significant overlap between groups at high risk of COVID-19 and homes without internet access. A recent report from Ofcom found that in the UK 43% of people age 75 and over do not have any kind of home internet connection. Nor do 26% of people age 65-74, or the 24% of people who work in semi-skilled and unskilled manual jobs.
And with libraries closed many are more cut off than ever before. Indeed, people rely on libraries for online access – a place to search for jobs, answer emails, access educational resources and stay in touch with the outside world.
Yet even though not everyone has equal access to technology or the internet, the UK government has continued to push forward with its plans for “digital by default”. This sidelines the most vulnerable members of society – including the elderly, sick and poor – and forces everyone to use IT for everyday tasks. Examples include patients having to order their medication online, unemployed people needing to apply for social benefits (universal credit) over the internet and homeless people unable to access basic help and support.
In this sense, COVID-19 has significantly increased demand on many online services, including the already troubled universal credit system – with many new claimants experiencing significant delays. The alternative option, to apply over the phone, has also been severely disrupted during this time. This has resulted in people not having enough money to buy food, while others have been forced to home-educate their children without access to computers or the internet.
According to the Good Things Foundation, a social change charity that uses digital tools to help vulnerable people, in some areas, initiatives in the community – such as help with shopping for vulnerable people – have only been advertised on websites and via social media platforms. This means that large groups of people have been unable to access, or have been unaware of, the available help.
The House of Lords Public Services Committee inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 found a number of inequalities in terms of access to critical public services. In the inquiry, Sarah Mann, director of Friends, Families and Travellers, a charity that works with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups, highlighted how the pandemic has led to the exclusion of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people from public services.
“It took a long time for any guidance to get out to local authorities to remind them that they may have a duty to support Gypsy and Traveller families as they would other families in this situation.”
Connect us all
According to a 2019 survey by Oxford Internet Institute, 20% of British people do not use the internet. And much of this 20% is made up of people on low incomes and with lower levels of education.
In this sense, COVID-19 has revealed the problematic nature of the government’s plan to make everything “digital by default”. Indeed, this is an idea born out of austerity and an approach that transfers the cost of public functions from the public sector to individuals or business. And the cost of supporting those to charities, families, volunteers or local government. Underlying many internet-based systems are also design choices that further exclude already marginalised members of society – particularly disabled people.
Serving only online customers may be a perfectly reasonable and sustainable business model in the private sector. But the public sector needs to administer statutory obligations, entitlements and duties of care – including welfare, healthcare and justice – for us all as equals under the law.
Digitising government for “efficiency” under the guise of “improving services” compromises this principle. And, ultimately, if a public service is not reaching everyone, then it’s failing in its duty.