As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and its human costs become painfully clear, governments are stepping up restrictions on everyday activities to stem the outbreak. Increasingly, the practicalities of implementing their strategies depend heavily on technology.
For example, in Hong Kong, while schools are shut lessons are conducted online. Across the UK, staff at professional services businesses have packed up their laptops to work from home. And all around the world, those who are self-isolating rely on video calls to stay connected to loved ones and the internet to order in groceries.
In such unusual times it is easy to assume that technology is acting as a lifeline to normalcy. However, for millions this is simply not the case. That’s why DevicesDotNow has launched to get the most vulnerable online during the crisis. We’re calling on companies to donate tablets, smartphones and laptops, as well as connectivity in the form of sims, dongles and mobile hotspots.
THE SCALE OF THE UK’S DIGITAL DIVIDE
In 2019, the UK Consumer Digital Index found that 10 percent of people in the UK – over five million people – had zero basic digital skills and a further 2 percent – over one million adults – had just basic abilities. Overall, this research by Lloyds Bank shows that nearly 12 million people do not have the essential digital skills needed for life in the UK.
The same year, the UK Office for National Statistics reported that 7 percent of homes did not have any internet connection. Today, with schools closed to all except the children of key workers – for example, nurses and delivery drivers – children in these homes are offline. That means they cannot access online education resources nor teacher emails with homework.
Additionally, social distancing has slashed demand for some service providers, such as hairdressers and restaurant staff. The resulting drop in income for these groups will force more families to rely on services like foodbanks, which are easily discovered on the internet.
COVID-19 highlights with more urgency than ever before the digital inequalities that exist in the U.K. today, and these digital inequalities can lead to both economic inequalities and health inequalities
Groups more vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19 are finding accessing digital resources a real issue. A third of people in their seventies are not online, and people with a disability are more than twice as likely to be offline.
This is a huge proportion of the UK unable to access the NHS website for the most reliable and clearly-communicated information about COVID-19 and how to reduce their risks. For them, shopping online is not an option and social isolation a real threat.
DEMAND FOR DIGITAL IS GROWING
COVID-19 highlights with more urgency than ever before the digital inequalities that exist in the UK today. These inequalities have been the focus of FutureDotNow, an organisation helping business boost digital skills across the UK and working to identify and remove barriers preventing more people from developing their digital skills. Together with Oliver Wyman, a leading global management consultancy, we carried out our own research into the personal stories and experiences behind the digital divide.
Through our research, we see that the people without key digital skills often don't acknowledge or agree that they are 'lacking' anything. Most had no incentive to want to build their digital skills. This aligns with the UK Consumer Digital Index, which estimates that three million people who are offline have no interest in the internet whatsoever. Findings from the Office for National Statistics concur, suggesting 61 percent of those offline do not think they need an internet connection for any reason.
With COVID-19 affecting daily lives, this lack of motivation to develop digital skills is waning. The pandemic provides a very real motive to get online to access potentially life-saving advice and information. Community organisations such as those in the Online Centre Network have been inundated with requests for help, but have had to physically close the doors to their centres. As such, we need to move without delay to help these organisations do all they can to get vulnerable people and their families online.
This has led to the next stage of our work, which forms part of the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport response to COVID-19. Through this collaboration we have created DevicesDotNow, an initiative that aims to stock frontline community organisations with internet-ready devices for distributing to those most in need of them. Devices supplied by the service are pre-loaded with relevant apps, such as the NHS app and video-calling functions, to make them as easy-to-use as possible after basic training over the phone.
The only way DevicesDotNow will succeed is if UK businesses get involved. We’re looking for companies to come forward and donate tablets, smartphones, and laptops. These can be new, spare, or old products. Connectivity in the form of SIM cards, dongles, and open WiFi hotspots are also very welcome and will supplement the measures agreed by telecoms companies to support their vulnerable customers.
If a purely philanthropic motivation is not enough, businesses should also consider that many of the people who will receive these devices will be their customers. Helping to move customers online, for example for banking services or food shopping, may be the only way to keep and acquire customers while social distancing continues.
The response so far has been strong, but we need more if we are to get the most vulnerable people in the UK online. If your organization may be able to help, visit www.devicesdotnow.uk for more information on how to get involved.
For the future, this current experience should serve as a strong lesson that the digital skills gap affects more than the economy and workforce. Digital inequalities lead to both economic inequalities and health inequalities. These health inequalities affect healthcare resources specifically and our whole society generally. Never has it been more important to focus on digital skills and the benefits they bring to everyone around the country.