For the millions in digital poverty, local lockdowns mean utter isolation

The debate around levelling up and the UK’s North/South divide has been reignited with a vengeance.

With Greater Manchester pushed into Tier 3 last week along with Lancashire, and Warrington following yesterday, by the end of this week eight million people will be living under the strictest set of lockdown rules, predominantly in the north of England.

While much of the focus has been on the level of financial support awarded to these areas, there is a critical aspect of this divide which has been allowed to slip under the radar: digital poverty.

The UK’s digital infrastructure has been fundamental in enabling British society to continue operating throughout the pandemic. Whether surfing Netflix or ordering food deliveries to the vulnerable, booking GP video appointments or making the pivot to online learning for school pupils, never before have we as a nation been so reliant on digital solutions. 

But there is a dark side to this British success story. Just as working from home is a privilege enjoyed by those who only need a laptop and Zoom account to conduct their jobs, the vital digital services many of us take for granted are a luxury that millions cannot currently access. 

And the North in particular is bearing the brunt of this inequality. 

The stats are stark. The Lloyds’ Consumer Digital Index 2020 found that nine million people in the UK are “digitally excluded”, with no or limited access to the internet. Of that figure, 40 per cent are based in northern England, in the cities and regions hit hardest by the latest wave of local Tier 3 lockdowns. According to the digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation, just 18 per cent of the residents in the North East of England are able to use the internet fully, compared to 49 per cent in the South East of the country. 

That means that one in four people in northern England will be facing the double restrictions of strict local lockdown and digital poverty. They will have no access to the support of their family and friends, nor to vital healthcare, information, education, financial support, food deliveries, or professional services. 

The consequences of this isolation could be long-lasting. The impact of Covid-19 on the nation’s mental health has already been identified as a worrying trend — being thoroughly cut-off, without even the internet to provide access to sources of emotional support, can only exacerbate this. And with schools considering a return to more remote learning as infections increase, we should remember that it will be nigh on impossible for children to participate in online education without reliable internet access.

The Treasury has been working overtime to develop economic packages to support areas in lockdown, but alongside those efforts, we need to see a concerted effort from the public and private sectors to address the challenge of digital poverty — in the north of England, and across the whole country. 

Collaboration is vital here — across the public and private sectors, on both a centralised and local level. We’ve been working hard with charitable organisations to tackle this issue, and we urge other technology companies to get involved too. We cannot afford to wait.

Ending digital poverty is possible, but action needs to be taken now. If not, the triple attacks of economic disruption, healthcare concerns and digital exclusion risk leaving an entire generation behind. 

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