Spotlight Leader: Bridging the great pandemic divide

Technology has never been so important.

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An estimated 11.9 million people in the UK lack “essential digital skills” and some four million are offline, research by Lloyds Bank has found. Yet six weeks into Britain’s lockdown, it is clear that much of the key to the coronavirus puzzle lies online. From contact-tracing apps to online school resources or simply passing the time, the pandemic and responses to it have been decidedly digital. This reliance on technology highlights the importance of internet access. Among households that have it, contract costs expose additional divisions, with those on pay-as-you-go deals spending far more on data.

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was mocked for proposing to provide free broadband. But in a world remade by coronavirus, the government and private sector are taking steps to widen access.

In March, major internet providers agreed to remove data caps on fixed-line broadband. The Department for Education has pledged to provide laptops and tablets to disadvantaged children, as well as 4G routers for those with no mobile internet or broadband.

Not being online increasingly affects access to services and opportunities, exacerbating inequalities. Those not online share certain demographics, according to the Good Things Foundation. They tend to be older and have lower educational attainment and income levels. But policymakers must make sure that digital skills catch up as digital transformation continues apace across society. Some 33 per cent of retired people say they lack such skills, but even the more internet savvy could use a boost. A recent survey of UK firms found that more than a third of respondents admitted not knowing what phishing was.

Coronavirus has seen a trend in related online scams, which prey on the vulnerable. Beyond the pandemic, however, cyber safety needs to become an integral part of education and of support for government services. Ensuring people have more confidence online might just get more of us going digital too. According to that same Lloyds Bank poll, of those who said that “nothing” would get them on the internet, 60 per cent were worried about identity theft, 58 per cent about privacy and security, and 55 per cent about use of their data.

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