An important part of the response to coronavirus has been the use of online services. More people are working from home, and more public services such as education and healthcare are being delivered online. But access to digital technology is uneven, and those with arguably the most to gain from using digital services are the least likely to be able to do so.
Digital coronavirus response
Digital technology is being used both to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus - for example through home-working or shopping online - and to mitigate the impact of the lockdown, which makes accessing public services such as education and healthcare difficult.
Key ways that digital technology is being used include:
- On 16 March, a week before the stay at home rules were introduced, the Prime Minister announced that people who were able to should work from home. According to survey data, time spent working from home across the UK has increased by 67% since before the lockdown began.
- On 20 March schools across the UK closed to most children. The Welsh Government has said that the task now is to “find ways to help our children keep learning”, which means “enabling remote learning”. Schools are expected to support pupils’ learning from home, through the use of online resources such as Hwb.
- Since early April, all GP practices in Wales can access a new system which allows people to have online appointments with their doctor and other healthcare professionals. Video consultations have been extended to secondary and community care.
- Major supermarkets have agreed to prioritise online home delivery orders for extremely vulnerable people, using personal details provided by the Welsh Government.
- Between 16 March and 4 May nearly two million people applied for Universal Credit in the UK. The Work and Pensions Secretary told MPs that figure was six times the normal claimant rate, and in one week there had been a "tenfold" increase in claims. Universal Credit claims, in the first instance, are made online, with a phone line to use if you "cannot use digital services at all".
- Digital technology – such as video-calling – can ease social isolation caused by lockdown measures. This is particularly important for older people who, because of their susceptibility to the virus, may isolate themselves for longer and to a greater degree than other groups of the population.
Access to digital services mirrors other inequalities in society
97% of premises in Wales have access to broadband speeds of 10 Mbps or above, about the same as the UK average (98%). Communications regulator Ofcom calls this “decent broadband”: it should be fast enough for all the activities mentioned in this article.
This means that if people want access to decent broadband, and can pay for it, the vast majority can subscribe to a suitable broadband package from an Internet Service Provider. However, research by the Welsh Government shows that in 2018-19 13% of households did not have access to the internet, and access to online services mirrors other inequalities in society:
- 98% of those aged 16-49 used the internet compared with 49% of those aged 75 or older.
- Those in employment were more likely to have internet access at home (96%) than those who were unemployed (84%) or economically inactive (78%).
- 79% of people with a limiting long-standing illness, disability or infirmity used the internet, compared with 93% of those without such a condition.
- Of those with educational qualifications at degree level and above, 96% were internet users; of those with no qualifications, 68% used the internet.
Arguably, people with the most to gain from accessing digital services during the pandemic – such as older people looking to access health services and keep in touch with grandchildren, or the recently-unemployed needing to apply for Universal Credit - are the least likely to have access to the internet at home.
This discrepancy is mirrored by the likelihood of people having the skills needed to make the most of an internet connection. According to the same Welsh Government research, the key factors for having a range of digital skills are being aged between 16 and 49 and being educated to degree level or above.
Tackling digital exclusion during the pandemic
The Welsh Government promotes access to digital services through its Digital Communities division. This work has increased in several ways during the pandemic:
- Welsh Government is providing funding to buy more than a thousand new tablets for health and care environments. The devices will be sent out to care homes, hospices and ward settings, and will support the NHS Wales video consulting service, which is being rolled out rapidly across the Welsh NHS.
- The Education Minister has announced up to £3 million to support digitally-excluded learners. Local authorities will use the funding to provide digitally excluded learners with repurposed school devices and 4G MiFi connectivity.
Digital Communities has a webpage which explains the range of online support it is providing during the pandemic, including training courses and online resources. This includes support for people to become digital companions so they can help people they know access digital services.
The way that coronavirus exacerbates existing inequalities has been noted by many, including the First Minister. Digital technology can tackle inequality by broadening access to services, but digital inclusion work is needed to ensure that these gains are shared across society.
Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales
We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.
You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.