In April 2021 the House of Lords COVID-19 Committee published its report ‘Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World’. At the beginning of July the UK Government reply to the report was published and then on 22 July 2021 the Committee published its response to the Government’s reply.
We submitted evidence to the original report, with support from Better ConNEcted, the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) and Inclusion Barnet, and so we have been following progress with interest.
Our submission focused on the following key issues:
- While digital technology is regarded as an integral part of everyday life, research shows that certain groups of people do not have access, or are unable to use, digital processes.
- Inequalities based on disability, age (and other protected characteristics) and/or socio-economic status are leading to people being disproportionately impacted by the “digital divide” and this has been made worse by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Social and economic rights are afforded to all without discrimination and are included in a number of international human rights standards that successive UK Governments voluntarily ratified and with which the UK Government is obliged to comply.
- Any measures taken by the UK Government or public authorities which increase or decrease the extent to which people are ‘living online’ should have human rights at its core in order to adequately respond to the needs of the population.
- There are many issues related to living online that the UK Government could address in order to improve long-term wellbeing, particularly for people who are being disproportionately affected or disadvantaged by the “digital divide”.
These were reflected in recommendations made in the Committee’s report, including:
- The UK Government should ensure that using digital technology to tackle existing inequalities is a key strand running through its new hybrid strategy. It should also publish a detailed equality impact assessment alongside its strategy, explaining the effect of its plans on different communities and how it will mitigate any negative consequences identified.
- The UK Government should consider introducing a legal right to internet access and digital infrastructure, which is regulated in a way that gives individuals a suitable right to redress.
- The UK Government should work with internet providers to develop a scheme to provide affordable internet and suitable, safe devices (not necessarily just a smart phone), on which to use it, to those in poverty and low incomes.
- The UK Government must make a commitment (and an ambitious target) to improve digital literacy central to its new hybrid strategy, and work with charities, skills providers and local authorities to deliver a comprehensive digital skills programme, informed by the knowledge these organisations have about how to meet effectively the varied needs of different communities.
- The UK Government should work with UK Research Councils and Higher Education funding bodies to identify and address gaps in the evidence base for both how our increasingly hybrid world is impacting on different communities, and on the effectiveness of policies and interventions developed in response to the digital future. The lack of data on Black and Asian communities’ experiences, alongside those of other minority ethnic communities, should be a particular priority
- The UK Government should also work with the NHS to ensure that current, and future, healthcare systems and processes reflect the new hybrid reality, including the importance of face-to-face provision, and enable patients to move seamlessly between online and offline service provision
However, responding to the UK Government, the Committee clarified that they were ‘extremely disappointed’ with the quality of response they received, particularly because it failed to even acknowledge a third of Committee’s recommendations. The Committee also added that it seemed that the UK Government had not yet caught up with the transformational nature ‘of the pandemic and the implications that therefore this will have on the development of public policy across UK Government.’