Digital exclusion: the people left behind by the pandemic shift to life online

QR codes in cafes and virtual GP appointments are now the norm for many - but society’s rapid shift to digital could mean post-pandemic exclusion for the elderly, poor and disadvantaged.

When Meron settled in Sheffield as an asylum seeker late last year, she, like most in her position, was rebuilding her life from scratch.

Arriving just ahead of the second national lockdown in November 2020, Meron, who asked NationalWorld to use her first name only, initially found herself at a loose end, given she “didn’t know any people, didn’t really have any friends and didn’t go out much”.

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Meron soon busied herself by signing up for Zoom English classes and a coding course, yet it was here that she hit another wall: her lack of reliable internet access.

Experts have warned that people who are offline face increasingly limited options for accessing leisure and essential services.
Experts have warned that people who are offline face increasingly limited options for accessing leisure and essential services.

“I had to use my phone and top up £10 [every time]. But when you go to Zoom classes on video the data finishes really quickly.

“I was trying to find places with internet to join the class but I didn’t know many because I’m so new here, it was really challenging. Sometimes the internet I found was really bad and I couldn’t hear [the teacher],” she explains.

Thankfully, the Sheffield-based Learn For Life Enterprise stepped in, offering data top-ups to Meron which not only enabled her to access online classes, but also “social media for speaking to friends online, and Google Maps for getting around”, she explains.

It’s a story that bears testament to how rapidly internet access has moved from being a luxury to a necessity over the past ten years; a process now hyper-accelerated by the pandemic.

From the track and trace app to virtual GP appointments access to public life, and leisure, many essential services now hinge on an assumption that all members of society have access to a reliable internet connection and/or a smartphone.

And while the pandemic may have increased the number of people going online, there remain millions among the elderly, the poor and asylum seekers who still face barriers to internet access. As already-marginalised groups, this assumption risks leaving them further behind.

Helen Milner, Chief Executive of digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation, describes the digital divide as having “narrowed but deepened”, with the pandemic getting more people online while “more deeply excluding those not [online] as the digital transformation accelerates further”.

Older people represent the largest number of those not online, with Sally West, policy expert at Age UK, saying that “digital inclusion reduces with age, with the 75 plus group particularly unlikely to be online”.

There are a number of reasons why an older person might not want to use the internet, she says, from “feeling like it’s too late to learn” to fears about online security.

Others, meanwhile, would simply rather remain offline.

Even a few years back, staying off the internet might have been feasible for such people, but they’re now facing increasingly limited options.

“Virtually everything now is focused online - all the main sources of government information about everything goes on gov.uk, an online system, whereas you used to be able to go to the Post Office and pick up leaflets on all sorts of things,” Sally explains.

One particular worry is the shift to virtual GP appointments.

“If your hearing isn’t great and you’re trying to talk to your doctor over video that’s going to be difficult...we’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying it’s been harder to access services.

“A big concern is that people just aren’t bothering or waiting longer than usual because of [the technology barrier,” Sally says.

Many elderly people known as “proxy users” rely on neighbours, friends or family to help them access the internet, but this in itself has downsides.

“It could make older people increasingly dependent on others - in a way it takes their independence away,” Sally says.

It’s not just the elderly either: relying on others for internet access can throw up problems for anyone with few close connections in the community such as refugees or the homeless.

Helen recalls her charity recently helping a homeless man who, without a smartphone or any internet connection, found himself unable to apply for housing - a process moved entirely online.

“Luckily, he’s now got himself into housing as a result of finding help. All those who aren’t as lucky may find themselves stuck in a difficult situation,” she says.

Both Helen and Sally advocate for greater access to the internet for all, but acknowledge that, as more people go online, the options available to those who don’t will become even more limited.

“The concern is that the more doing things online becomes mainstream, it may be harder for people to do things offline unless there’s a concerted effort from service providers to make those provisions,” Sally says.

It’s the government’s imperative to make sure that support is given to organisations like Age UK to help people get online and provide ongoing support to those who are struggling, says Sally.

“And secondly I think it’s important for there to be a recognition that actually [being online] might not be for everybody, especially when it comes to public services,” she adds.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the essential nature of internet access for participation in society, yet both Helen and Sally fear the real danger of digital exclusion will come once the pandemic begins to fade from memory.

“This feels an important issue during the pandemic but I’m massively worried that it’ll go away in the public’s mind, and once it’s gone away in the public’s mind it often goes away in the policymakers’ minds,” says Helen.

“They [the government] talk about levelling up, and you can’t ever level up without digitally including the whole population.”