When this Committee was established in May 2020, very few people imagined that, a year later, our lives would still be severely restricted by the pandemic. People’s work, education, relationships, social and leisure activities and opportunities to travel have all been curtailed.
The fact that we have been able to continue with these things to the extent that we have has in large part been thanks to the internet. Indeed, the way that the internet enabled many people to continue to work, learn, trade, access services etc is what made it possible for governments to introduce the restrictions that they did; the internet enabled many of us to stay home, and to stay safe.
This dependence on the internet as a result of the pandemic has led to a massive acceleration in many pre-existing digital trends: from online shopping to online GP appointments, automation of jobs to remote working. It has been a catalyst for breaking through the inertia that existed in some sectors in relation to digitalisation and we have adjusted our behaviours and invested in technology to the extent that we have reached a level of digitalisation that we might not otherwise have done for many years.
This last year of living online has highlighted starkly the huge inequalities that exist in this country. The children who have lost a year of schooling for want of a laptop and an internet connection; the businesses that could not move their trade online because they lacked the skills or broadband access to do so; those who have spent the year isolated and alone, not able to join an online community group or religious service because they have never used the internet and would not know where to start. We should, as a society, be ashamed that so many have suffered unnecessarily, for want of the things that have become such basic essentials of modern life.
The future was always going to be hybrid—an increasingly blurred mix of online and offline aspects of life. As a result of the pandemic, that future is here now. Some individuals, organisations and businesses will adapt pretty effortlessly but many millions will not. This is a societal change that affects us all, whether we want it to or not, and we believe Government intervention needs to be more fundamental than is currently being envisaged.
For this inquiry, we set out to look at the impact that the pandemic-driven digital acceleration might have in the long-term on the aspects of life known to have the biggest impact on our wellbeing: physical and mental health, social connection, education, quality of work.
In each area, we found that there had been real (and sometime surprising) benefits to some people from the sudden shift to digital; benefits that must not be lost in a desire to ‘return to normal.’
We also heard plenty of examples of where digital was a very poor substitute for ‘in person’ services and interactions. This year has left many of us longing for, and appreciating, the value of human contact as never before.
Most damningly, we heard time and again that the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in society were being further marginalised and disadvantaged because they did not have the money to pay for an internet connection and a computer, did not have the appropriate space at home, or did not have the skills and confidence to fully participate in the online world.
Without urgent Government action we risk:
The UK Government has already committed to producing a new digital strategy in light of the economic and societal changes of the last year. However, if this is simply an updated version of what has gone before this will be nothing like sufficient. The gulf between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ will become a new dividing line, with society separated between those for whom digitalisation means a move to a rural idyll, the flexibility of home working, and easy access to online services; and those for whom it means precarious, poorly paid work, with access to public services and amenities restricted to whatever stripped down ‘in person’ offering remains and living in cramped homes that make it difficult or impossible to prosper in the new hybrid era.
As with other major cross-cutting issues—Brexit, devolution, Government efficiency—responsibility for the Government’s strategic response should sit with the Cabinet Office because this shift will affect the development of public policy across all of Whitehall. ‘Digital’ has far outgrown the time when it could sit siloed as a separate policy area in a single government department. Investment in digital infrastructure and skills is very much needed. However, that on its own will not be enough. This strategy needs to be genuinely new and to take into account fully the profound changes of the last year.
We need a new ‘social contract’ in light of how digitalisation is shaping society: what can individuals now expect from the state, from services and from employers, and what can those organisations expect from us? How we, collectively, answer this question will be a critical factor in the long-term impact of this last year on our individual and collective wellbeing.
Although commuting to work (and travel of all sorts) significantly reduced during the pandemic, with a consequent reduction in emissions, other COVID-related behaviour change may have had a negative environmental impact. There has been a significant increase in vehicles delivering online shopping and takeaway meals to people’s homes, for example, while working from home will have changed patterns of energy consumption. The Government should make a careful assessment of the climate change implications of the hybrid world and adopt policies to mitigate any negative impact.