The UK’s digital divide has been the subject of much debate and scrutiny in recent decades.
With the rapid growth of technology has come the widening gap between those who have access to digitised services and technologies and those who are excluded.
Research shows a clear correlation between social exclusion and digital exclusion, noting an overlap between those who are marginalised – poor communities, ethnic minority groups, migrants and asylum seekers, disabled people, the homeless and the elderly – and those who are digitally excluded.
Regrettably, these overlapping inequalities became further pronounced when the coronavirus pandemic hit early last year.
With national lockdowns and social distancing measures brought in rapidly – seeing workplaces, schools, and countless in-person services move to an online setting – those without either access to digital devices or the skills needed to navigate them found themselves left behind.
While the digitisation of several aspects of our lives may have been a smooth transition for some, many found themselves at a loss as they grappled with the reality that they were now almost entirely disconnected from the world around them.
When it comes to health inequalities specifically, digital exclusion can prove fatal – especially during a public health crisis such as COVID-19.
The digitisation of health services is not a new phenomenon nor one which coincides solely with the pandemic, however, as a result of nationwide social distancing measures, GP consultations, prescription requests and registration have now predominantly moved to an online-only setting, dominating primary care and outpatient services.
Those unable to access these services remotely due to lacking either a computer, the internet or both, are facing barriers to healthcare in the midst of a health crisis.
Research carried out by The Lancet found lockdown strategies are in fact worsening digital inequality, with the closure of public libraries and online learning centres having devastating repercussions for those who rely on these for access to the internet and digital devices.
People who cannot afford internet access from home, or who do not have the skills necessary to navigate these technologies, are finding themselves cut off from crucial communication between public authorities and the general public.
This threatens public health at a time when accurate information regarding COVID-19 is essential.
The correlation between health inequalities, digital exclusion and marginalised groups
For groups that are already marginalised, digital inequality is particularly rife and is having a knock-on effect when it comes to health disparities.
Analysis conducted by the BMJ found excluded populations – such as migrants living in vulnerable circumstances, Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, and people experiencing homelessness – are at particular risk of adverse health outcomes as a result of the digital divide.
Working alongside Doctors of the World, researchers examined how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting these groups, specifically as a result of being both digitally and socially excluded.
Many of those interviewed told of how they cannot afford regular phone credit or internet data, and as a result, they are often deterred from calling healthcare providers as call waiting times can be long, consequently draining their phone credit.
This issue is only exacerbated for those who have to wait to be connected to an interpreter, which is again both time consuming and expensive.
Beyond the healthcare implications, a Good Things Foundation report noted how the digital divide is impacting every day domestic processes throughout the pandemic.
They reported isolated older people going hungry due to being unable to order food deliveries, parents of school-aged children struggling to access free school meal vouchers, and jobseekers struggling to claim and update their Universal Credit accounts.
Digital inequality is impacting almost every aspect of the lives of those who are excluded.
Poverty and educational inequalities
The link between poverty and digital inequality is indisputable.
Research by Cambridge University found the likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, with only 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 having home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of more than £40,001.
This has meant that, throughout the pandemic, with teaching moving primarily online, children living in poverty have struggled to access the same learning resources as their wealthier peers.
Children living in poverty are already at a substantial disadvantage:
Cambridge’s research found that in 2019, of those who have been eligible for free school meals or who have been in care, only 25% achieved grades 9-5 in GCSE English and maths.
This gap is only set to grow further due to the digital divide throughout the pandemic.
Prioritising digital inclusivity and accessibility
It is vital that the government brings in immediate measures to tackle the UK’s digital divide.
PIF’s Health and Digital Literacy report outlines steps which ought to be taken, from ensuring that key tools such as the NHS App are available in commonly spoken languages to removing barriers such as the requirement of a passport or driving licence to ensure personal health data is secure.
A crucial aspect of this must be engaging with users when developing digital resources and services.
Long-term support networks must be established to help individuals to acquire the skills they need to use online services.
What’s more, access to the internet must be viewed as a basic right.
For those who cannot afford internet access or phone credit, health services should offer a call-back service or freephone numbers.
Similarly, many have proposed that those who receive financial or housing support from the government ought to automatically be provided free broadband or this should at least be accounted for within the government’s assistance.
The digital divide must no longer be ignored – it is a matter of both personal and public wellbeing that digital inclusivity is prioritised.
Holly Barrow is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, which provides legal advice and guidance on all matters of immigration, including citizenship, settlement and UK visas .