Bridge the digital divide

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Some time ago I worked in the Cabinet Office in Whitehall it was government policy that no-one should be forced to use the internet, but now policy seems to have turned full circle with the government’s “Test and Trace” system to deal with the coronavirus.

Initially, and for quite a long time, tests were only available at drive-in centres on the assumption that every one owned a car or could access one. This eventually changed and tests could be ordered online, or by phone, and – even more recently – walk-in centres began to appear.

And now with the government’s test and trace programme the assumption is that everybody is online and has access to a mobile phone or a computer or both. But these bits of kit cost money to buy in the first place, and then cost money to run – whether it an internet connection at home, or a mobile phone contract.

And similar assumptions were made in terms of working from home, and in the case of schoolchildren and older students studying from home. And that overlooks the further obstacle of whether an individual can actually use this kit, or is prevented from doing so by having some sort of handicap.

When keyboards turn risky

In my case I thought, and was told, that from birth I was just clumsy, and then later I was told I seemed to be poorly co-ordinated – a long word for clumsy. But in fact it was something called dyspraxia, which was eventually diagnosed because I started typing words that were different from my thoughts.

What I typed may have sounded the same, or looked similar, but it was not the word I meant – so there was clearly a “weak link” in my brain (and I typed “work” rather than “word” in this last sentence).

So I have since closed my online bank account and avoided any online financial arrangements such as booking train tickets, rooms or holidays. This press release to Rye News from the Centre for Ageing Better this week therefore caught my eye.

“Urgent action is needed to bridge the digital divide in event of second lockdown as nearly a fifth of over-65s don’t use the internet

  • Experts at the Centre for Ageing Better have warned that much more action is needed to support older people to use the internet in preparation for a possible second lockdown
  • New ONS figures show that at the beginning of 2020, nearly a fifth of over-65s hadn’t used the internet within the last three months
  • During lockdown many used the internet to stay connected and access services, but some have been left behind”

Bridging the digital divide

So is online use to become compulsory then? And how can many pensioners afford it when they are already struggling with essential costs, like rent and food?

But the press release continued : “Experts have warned that action is needed to bridge the digital divide, with new figures showing that in the first two months of this year, nearly one in five (18%) of over-65s said they hadn’t used the internet within the last three months. The Centre for Ageing Better say that in the event of a second lockdown, many are at risk of being left behind as services move online often without offline alternatives.

“New figures from the ONS (Office of National Statistics) show that internet use has rapidly increased among over-65s in recent years, but at the start of this year a fifth (20%) of over-65s living alone still did not have internet access. Less than half of over-65s (49%) used online banking compared to 90% of 16-34 year-olds. Less than a fifth had used the internet to make a medical appointment (19%) or access health services online (17%).

“Only 53% of over-65s and 77% of 55-64 year-olds had a smartphone, compared to over 95% for younger age groups.”

Well, I don’t have a smartphone. Mine cost £5, can receive texts, but is not online – and anything more would be wasted on my fingers and my brain. But I have had the odd suspicious look from London coppers when I use it.

Some over 65s could be left behind

“During the lockdown, many people turned to the internet for shopping, socialising and accessing services like medical treatment. But there are fears that those without basic digital skills and the means to get online could be left behind – particularly if the UK enters lockdown again.

“Experts warn this digital divide could deepen inequalities, with research showing that those who are not online are likely to be in worse health, poorer and less well-educated than their peers. Affordability can also be a barrier to getting online for those who don’t already have the means to do so.”

“Suggestions that in the event of a second wave of the coronavirus all over-50s could be asked to ‘shield’ prompted a huge backlash. With infections rising in many places in the UK, Boris Johnson has been planning for potential lockdown scenarios to prevent a second peak.

“Anna Dixon, Chief Executive at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: ‘These figures show that while internet use has been rising in recent years, there are still many at risk of missing out as increasing numbers of services and activities move online.

More support is needed

‘During lockdown, the internet provided a vital lifeline for many – allowing people to stay in touch with friends and family, access banking or use medical services. But not everyone has been able to make the leap online, and it’s vital that those people are not left behind.

‘More support is needed to help people develop digital skills. And government, businesses and service providers must ensure that those without internet access are not locked out of access to information and essential services such as banking, health information, shopping or paying bills.’

However that is already happening, and has happened, with the government’s test and trace services (and seems to be happening with my local GP’s surgery) – and it is the government that must set the standard, as it used to when I worked in Whitehall.

Image Credits: Free-Photos https://pixabay.com/photos/computer-computer-code-screen-1209641/.

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