Why we must prioritise tackling the digital divide

The cultural reset that occurred at the start of the pandemic was a major one – we went from learning and working in offices and schools to doing it at home. It was a remarkable adaption for many, but it was not an inclusive one. Millions found themselves at home without the means by which to conduct their usual activities, and those who had the ability to get online and the skills to make the most out it profited at the expense of those who did not.

For those who did not have those connections, the transition was a much slower one. Children and young people who were sent home without the means to then dial in lost out on months of their education, with poor students 10x more likely to have lost the equivalent of 6 months education compared to their more affluent peers, and as services moved online, the older generation who are not as well versed in internet usage, or as well connected as their younger relations, found difficulty engaging. Different charities and organisations stepped in to try and plug this digital divide, but in the absence of widespread government attention, it became impossible to close it totally – although devices were pledged, some of them are only just arriving now, 12 months since lockdown first became a reality.

So as the economy starts to open up again later this year, the questions of how the advancements in connectivity can be best utilised have emerged quickly. Businesses across the UK have already announced that they are decreasing their office space and asking staff to permanently work from home, and a widened distribution of tech capability means new problems emerge in the gap between those who have and those who have not, and the online safety of those who do.

The pandemic led to many services moving online – GPs increasingly began offering video appointments with patients keen on them continuing, council services moved fully accessible online with record take up, and incredible teaching conducted by organisations such as the Oak National Academy attracting millions of views.

This presents numerous problems which future policy decisions must be able to deal with. How does this widening of connections impact on those that are not able to access the devices, or that do not have the digital skills to engage? How do ensure that everyone has access to the digital skills training they need, from those who need them to find employment, to others that need the skills to access cheaper services, their education, or their healthcare? How do we ensure that those who do not have the skills, or are not able to learn them, are not left behind, widening the digital divide?

With new connections and new devices too come issues with online safety, as those who were not previously connected suddenly are. Online fraud is at an although high, with millions lost to scams and fraud every year – the most high-profile example being the scam that encouraged people to click links and pay money to access their vaccine. With more digital skills, more people are able to identify what is real and what is not, and protect themselves against such threats.

The issue of solving the digital divide, and of digital inequalities, is one that is a challenging one, but it is one that has many benefits for the economy, for employment and for education.

Julie Elliott
All Party Parliamentary Group on Digital Skills

Julie Elliott