It didn’t take a seasoned Westminster watcher to predict that Rishi Sunak’s summer economic statement would focus squarely on jobs.
Even without the heavy trails in advance and the talk of kickstart schemes and boosted apprenticeships, research from McKinsey had already shown that 7.6 million UK workers are at risk of being laid off, temporarily furloughed, or subjected to reduced hours and pay.
Analysis in our new COVID-19 Response Report shows that almost half of these 7.6 millions of workers earn less than £10 per hour – and are likely to lack all the essential digital skills needed for life and work.
The chancellor said the government’s plan is to “turn our national recovery into millions of stories of personal renewal”, and the government will do “all it can” to help prevent job losses in the wake of the pandemic. “No one will be left without hope,” he pledged.
But across the country, the future looks worrying for the majority of the nation’s workforce – 17.1 million (52%) – who lack digital skills for work. With economic uncertainty now facing many more people, part-time workers and lone parents who were already vulnerable to unemployment and unfavourable job changes are amongst those likely to be put further at risk. The COVID-19 lockdown has fast-tracked the digital revolution for many sectors, who are increasingly likely to rely on both digital services and workers to incorporate digital skills into their roles and operate remotely when needed.
Challenges lie ahead for those who find themselves newly unemployed or underemployed. 2.5 million new applications for Universal Credit were made between the beginning of lockdown and the end of May alone. In the three weeks following the introduction of lockdown, seven million households – a quarter of all those in the UK – lost either a substantial part or all of their earned income. Being part of a digital society might not always be an option for those unable to pay bills, buy essentials, or – in some cases, forced to choose between data or food.
There is no denying COVID-19 has changed the world. Digital has instantly become a universal need, with lockdown exposing the depth and breadth of digital exclusion more clearly than ever before. People already facing financial hardship and other social and economic disadvantages have been unfairly affected, with many thrown into personal crises brought on by isolation and loss of access to support services.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities have been devastated by COVID-19. Its effects have worsened pre-existing inequalities in housing, health and employment. Lockdown has shown more clearly than ever that ‘digital exclusion’ means more than being offline, or having absolutely no digital skills. We know that lack of personal access to suitable devices and data poverty are also major factors.
However, if lockdown and COVID-19 have shone a light on where digital skills, support and access are missing, they have also provided visible momentum for digital inclusion, which we must not lose.
There are 1.9 million households in the UK without internet access. During lockdown Good Things Foundation mobilised a national response through DevicesDotNow in partnership with FutureDotNow, to get data-enabled devices to people who need them most. To date, through DevicesDotNow over 2,300 devices and data packages have been distributed to socially and medically vulnerable adults sheltering in their homes, along with telephone support on how to use their device and the internet safely. We’ve received donations and grants from a range of organisations, including our funding partners, and are on target to provide this direct digital support to 10,000 people. And support for DevicesDotNow continues to grow.
Digital skills and inclusion can no longer be siloed as an age related issue. Younger furloughed workers and other people have begun to realise their own need to gain essential digital skills as quickly as possible.
Working closely with the UK Government, our digital skills learning platforms, Learn My Way and Make It Click have been included as key resources on The Skills Toolkit, a collection of free digital and numeracy courses for furloughed workers launched by the UK Government in April. As a result, over 49,000 additional learning experiences have been generated through Learn My Way and Make It Click. Both platforms have seen their reach increase, not only to those already online but to those seeking to upskill and reskill in response to changes in their employment.
So if digital inclusion was already important, now it is fundamental. As part of our national recovery and healing we need to be proactive. We need to invest in supporting all people and all organisations to embrace digital technologies, to have affordable personal digital access as a basic right, and to develop digital skills for work and life for everyone.
This is not a time to stand still. We are still not a 100% digitally included nation, but we could be. During lockdown Good Things Foundation worked with many national and local organisations to ensure digital support was there when it was needed the most. Through national partnerships and innovative campaigns like DevicesDotNow, we have harnessed community action from our network partners, and seen remarkable commitment from ordinary people to overcome adversity and embody the endurance and fortitude the chancellor has been calling for. We have proved that digital inclusion can – at the very worst of times – help people to be happier, healthier and better off, now more than ever.
Call to action
As a nation, we are now moving from a period of crisis response into galvanising action for an economic recovery. For this to be successful a national commitment to digital skills and inclusion is critical. We are calling for:
- National awareness and acknowledgement that a digitally skilled nation benefits everyone
- National programmes that embed digital inclusion
- Digital inclusion support for all who need it, in every community
- Digital skills training for, and in, the workplace.
Our COVID-19 Response Report examines how to learn from the key lessons of this time and create a brighter digital future together.