The new normal: How closing the digital divide impacts and levels up society

This post first appeared on the Better ConNEcted website and is reproduced here with permission.

'The new normal.'

Three words now commonly used to make sense of the chaos caused by Covid-19. Three words that may be frustrating for those hearing them replayed and debated over the past few months. Are you sick of hearing it yet? Let's take a moment to reflect on the 'old normal.' Was the 'old normal' one that was inclusive for all, rooted in compassion and empathy for others? Was the 'old normal' truly a perfect version of things meaning anything new would be a downgrade? Admittedly, these questions are coated in sarcasm. The 'old normal' was working. Things were going fine. But now we have the chance to shine a mirror on society and look at what and whom were being left behind pre-Covid-19. We have a chance to make the 'new normal' great.

One area that has had a spotlight shone upon it throughout the pandemic is digital access. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, services were rapidly moved online. Many people without access to the internet found themselves isolated and left behind. Digital exclusion is a longstanding issue and Covid-19 has only widened the digital divide. Suddenly, the internet was the only means by which to apply for benefits, seek jobs, and for those shielding, even get food. The lockdown affected everyone, but those already disadvantaged will feel the effects more deeply. As Helen Barnard, JRF's Acting Director, stated: "Although we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat." 

Pre Covid-19, 22 per cent of households in the country were living with the effects of poverty, according to JRF's UK Poverty Report 19/20. It is likely that we won't see the true impact of Covid-19 until six to 12 months further down the line. Potentially, we're going to see a lot more people fighting to keep their heads above water. 

Digital exclusion is also a threat to peoples' physical and mental wellbeing. Madge Preston, Voluntary Vice Chair Heart Support Charity in Hartlepool said of her service:

"Members are high risk and need ongoing physical and mental support and help to combat isolation. We are doing our best to maintain contact with members in these challenging times. Although we have no age criteria, many of our members are over 70, the oldest being 90 years, and not all are technology savvy. Out of a membership of 88, roughly half have no access to a computer or couldn't use it if they had."

Those who used to access Madge's support services have not been able to during the pandemic. Elderly adults, along with asylum seekers and those on low incomes are likely to face barriers to digital inclusion. 

Improving digital inclusion will impact more than just the individual. Lloyd's Consumer Digital Index 19/20 states that, on average, a household that has better digital access is £300 per year better off than a household with little to no access. This is based on utilities alone. By enabling the 4.7 million people that have no digital skills to become better digitally connected, billions of pounds could be put back into the economy.

Hartlepool Action Lab has been working locally to bridge the digital divide. It is enabling people to access the support they need, both now and beyond lockdown. One example is its work with a young person that had been sleeping outside. Changes to council services had left him without support. He said:

"I'm street sleeping with no access to a phone or the internet, but I've been told that I  can only get Universal Credit by calling a number, and only get a house if I go online to bid for properties. I'm in a Catch 22. I want to improve my life and move forward but at the moment, due to the lockdown and being digitally excluded, I can't."

Hartlepool Action Lab helped him to find housing. Without support and encouragement, these barriers to digital access would have meant another young person was cast adrift. 

 As a society, we believe in the value of respect and empathy. We must ensure these values in closing the digital divide. Digital inclusion is one part of a fair and just ‘new normal'.