Nearly 100,000 people make a repeat prescription request through the NHS app every month. Image: The Big Issue
In association with O2
In a world that is moving online at an ever-increasing rate, it can be easy to take the internet for granted. But for those who can’t afford smartphones, computers, broadband or data – or who don’t have the skills for digital inclusion – it means being shut out of vital services and paying more for essentials.
It’s a barrier facing around 11.3 million people across the UK, while five million people say they never go online at all.
“Each year, the impact of the digital divide grows in significance as more and more services move online,” a spokesperson for Good Things Foundation, a leading digital inclusion charity, told The Big Issue.
“Being shut out of the online world – a world we often take for granted – affects the lives of people in many different ways, leading to financial and social exclusion. And many digital systems simply aren’t designed for people who have limited English skills.
“We need to fix the digital divide so that everyone can benefit from digital.”
But what does being digitally excluded look like in practice?
Struggling to find and apply for jobs
The days of walking into a business and handing over a paper CV are nearly gone. It means people without digital access – disproportionately people in poverty and/or long-term unemployed – don’t have the tools they need to browse for jobs, submit applications and fill in recruitment portals, receive notice of interviews or accept job offers.
That’s before a person can land a job. Digital skills are essential to an overwhelming number of sectors in 2021, meaning people’s job options are limited or their progression stunted once in a role.
As high as 92 per cent of businesses say having a basic level of digital skills is important, World Skills UK research showed, while Lloyds analysis suggested 11.8 million – 36 per cent of the workforce – don’t have the digital skills they need for work.
Becoming trapped in poverty
As well as struggling to find work, digital exclusion makes it much more difficult for disadvantaged people to increase their incomes.
Digital access is crucial for people who need to claim benefits or HMRC relief. Welfare payments such as universal credit are managed entirely online from the application process, to keeping track of when and how much will be paid, to checking in with advisers through the universal credit journal. Around 40 per cent of benefit claimants have low digital engagement levels.
Relying on computer access at, for example, libraries, still presents challenges as these are often time-limited. And for those without the digital or English skills to navigate the system, it means finding the time to visit already-stretched local services for in-person support.
It’s a problem which feeds into itself – those without the finances to get online have fewer options to increase their cash flow or get specialist help to pull themselves out of debt. Around two million households in the UK struggle to afford their internet bills, according to Ofcom, while many reported cutting back on essentials such as food to ensure they could pay to stay connected.
Many of us looking to cut down our living costs instinctively go online to track down the best deals and tariffs.
People without that option pay a digital exclusion premium. Those with the lowest levels of digital engagement are paying an average £228 per year on their bills than the rest of the population, according to Lloyds research. Nearly 70 per cent of people said the internet helped them save money.
It’s a particularly acute problem for low-income households – and those without English as a first language – as the cost of living crisis bites and energy bills soar.
Poorer health outcomes
Being cut off from the digital landscape is linked to poorer health and lower life expectancy, World Health Organisation figures show. Nearly 40 per cent of UK adults said they use the internet to help stay on top of their physical health.
Having digital skills has become so crucial to accessing important information that it is becoming a form of health literacy, the NHS said. Nearly 100,000 people make a repeat prescription request through the NHS app every month.
The Covid-19 crisis means that frontline healthcare has commonly only been available virtually since March 2020. Four in five GPs said they were worried about digital inclusion and patients who were likely to be shut out of appointments because they did not have the connectivity or skills to be seen via remote consultation, a Medical Protection Society poll showed.
And the pandemic proved how crucial digital access was to mental and social wellbeing when lockdown meant people across the country could only stay in touch with loved ones through laptops and smartphones. Nearly nine in 10 people said the internet helped them stay connected to friends and family this year, according to Lloyds research.
Being locked out of public services
Filling in online forms is an unavoidable step in accessing the services millions of people rely on, from applying for council housing to getting bus passes. People from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to need government services, but are also least likely to have the access or skills to use the internet.
And at a time when children’s education is seemingly in flux, the wealth gap between pupils in poorer and well-off parts of the country is highlighted when teaching moves online as a result of Covid-19 restrictions – a problem which resulted in a government scandal around digital inclusion last year as thousands were left without access to their school work.
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