by Freya Graham
It’s been over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way we use technology. The pandemic accelerated digitisation – all of sudden, the internet became the only way to access wider society. Healthcare and education were forced to operate remotely. As the UK expands its digital infrastructure, what lessons can we learn about digitisation from the Covid-19 pandemic?
- Digitisation Fuels Inequality
There is a digital divide in the UK. Many people – especially people living in poverty, over 60s, and people with disabilities – cannot easily access digital tools (Burgess and Holmes). There are several reasons why someone may experience digital exclusion, including lack of motivation, lack of digital skills, and the cost of broadband and data. As smart devices and the internet become vital ways of accessing healthcare, banking, and job opportunities, among other things, the divide between those who can access the digital world and those who can’t intensifies.
- Remote Healthcare is Possible, But It’s Far From Perfect
For many, the shift to digital healthcare is welcome. Service such as video medical consultations and ordering prescriptions online have made healthcare more accessible for several groups. Single parents, for instance, no longer have to bring children to GP appointments or arrange childcare, and rural populations can access some hospital consultations without travelling long distances.
However, for the 7% of the population who are almost completely offline (Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020), as well as the many others who have limited access to the internet, remote healthcare is inaccessible healthcare.
What’s more, some groups without access to the digital world are also those who are likely to need accessible healthcare the most. The Office for National Statistics 2020 survey found that people in the 65+ age group and people with disabilities were much less likely to use the internet on a daily basis (Baker, Hutton, Christie and Wright).
- Technology Alone Cannot Fix the Education Divide
For years, educational technology (‘EdTech’) has been held up as the future of education – a way to make classroom learning innovative and accessible (Marr). However, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that unless all children have access to the internet and smart devices, digitisation cannot fix the education divide.
A Sutton Trust survey carried out in April 2020 found that in the most deprived schools, 15% per cent of teachers reported that more than a third of their students would not have access to electronic devices needed for remote learning. Only 2 per cent of teachers in affluent schools reported concerns about students accessing electronic devices (Cullinane and Montacute). Furthermore, students from middle-class homes were much more likely to take part in live and recorded lessons from homes, compared to working class students (Cullinane and Montacute). Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be able to access online education. As a result, digitisation of education could contribute to a widening attainment gap.
- Public Spaces Remain Crucial to Digital Inclusion
When the UK went into lockdown, public spaces like libraries and cafes closed their doors. These spaces provided free wifi – and, in the case of public libraries, computers too – to those without home broadband. These spaces gave people who may not be able to afford broadband or data access to the internet. These public spaces allowed people to perform essential digital tasks, such as submitting job applications and accessing online banking.
For many, home broadband is unaffordable – it comes with upfront fees as well as monthly payments. 1.9 million households do not have access to the internet (Kelly). These households are often reliant on free wifi in public spaces and pay-as-you-go data services. In fact, pay-as-you-go customers make up more than a quarter of mobile phone plans in the UK (Kelly). As the cost of data increases, free wifi in public spaces is crucial to ensure digital accessibility.
5. Digitisation is here to stay
Digital infrastructure is expensive. Once businesses and public services have made investments in digital tools – as they have been forced to throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – they will be reluctant to do away with them.
The NHSX Covid-19 Track and Trace app is an example of digital investments made by businesses. QR check-ins are now a common feature in restaurants and cafes across the UK. The Track and Trace app remains inaccessible for some; a survey conducted by Silver Voices in October 2020 found that 31% of over 60s had not downloaded the app. 6 out of 7 who had not downloaded the app had not done so because their phone was too old to support it (Baker, Hutton, Christie and Wright).
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that digitisation has the power to make our society more connected and more efficient. It has also demonstrated that digitisation exacerbates inequality. The digital divide hits the most vulnerable the hardest. Digital infrastructure is not going away once the pandemic is over; we must ensure that digitally excluded groups are not left behind.
Baker, Hutton, Christie, and Wright, 2020, “COVID-19 and the digital divide”. Available at: https://post.parliament.uk/covid-19-and-the-digital-divide/
Burgess and Holmes, 2020, “‘Pay the wi-fi or feed the children’: Coronavirus has intensified the UK’s digital divide’”. Available at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/digitaldivide
Cullinane and Monacute, 2020, “COVID-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief #1: School Closures”, The Sutton Trust. Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/School-Shutdown-Covid-19.pdf
Kelly, 2020, “Digital divide ‘isolates and endangers’ millions of the UK’s poorest”, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/28/digital-divide-isolates-and-endangers-millions-of-uk-poorest
Koettlitz, 2020, “Digital inclusion, homelessness & COVID-19: Lessons learned”. Available at: https://diversityandability.com/blog/digital-exclusion-covid19/
Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020. Available at: https://www.lloydsbank.com/assets/media/pdfs/banking_with_us/whats-happening/lb-consumer-digital-index-2020-report.pdf
Majeed, Maile, and Coronini-Cronberg, 2020, “Covid-10 is Magnifying the Digital Divide”, BMJ Opinion. Available at: https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/09/01/covid-19-is-magnifying-the-digital-divide/
Marr, 2020, “The Top 5 Tech Trends That Will Disrupt Education In 2020 – The EdTech Innovations Everyone Should Watch”. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2020/01/20/the-top-5-tech-trends-that-will-disrupt-education-in-2020the-edtech-innovations-everyone-should-watch/?sh=3b4d9dbb2c5b).
Watts, 2020, ‘Covid-19 and the digital divide in the UK’, The Lancet. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landig/article/PIIS2589-7500(20)30169-2/fulltext