Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World Contents

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Introduction

1.While we welcome the UK Government’s commitment to developing a new Digital Strategy, we believe that it must go far beyond the traditional silo of ‘digital’ and recognise that all aspects of our lives are, and will increasingly be, a hybrid blend of online and offline interactions. In common with other critical issues that affect all Government departments, and that are embedded into all aspects of government policy, responsibility for a new hybrid strategy, and developing a wider hybrid approach, should sit with the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister. This central oversight of the hybrid approach should ensure the consideration of its impact on inequality and the evaluation of what services should be delivered remotely or face-to-face. (Paragraph 15)

Overarching themes

2.The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the deep inequalities that have existed in society for some time. Digital inequality is one vivid example of this. (Paragraph 28)

3.Throughout our inquiry, we have heard concerns that our increasing reliance on digital technology is having a detrimental impact on certain groups and communities, and is leading to some people being left behind. This cannot be allowed to continue. There are more analytical tools for Government to measure the unequal impact of digital technology than ever before, and we believe that the Government must use these analytical tools to understand which groups and communities are, or are not, using digital technology. This data must then be used to develop specific programmes to ensure that all groups and communities have the opportunity to benefit from the increasing use of digital technology, and that the hybrid world is one that tackles, rather than exacerbates, existing inequalities. (Paragraph 29)

4.The Government should ensure that using digital technology to tackle existing inequalities is a key strand running through its new hybrid strategy. It should also publish a detailed equality impact assessment alongside its strategy, explaining the effect of its plans on different communities and how it will mitigate any negative consequences identified. (Paragraph 30)

5.In today’s society, home broadband is an essential utility in the same way as water or electricity: without it, people are excluded from employment opportunities and access to vital services. No one should be without access to the internet for reasons of cost or location. (Paragraph 38)

6.We urge the Government to consider introducing a legal right to internet access and digital infrastructure, which is regulated in a way that gives individuals a suitable right to redress. We note that the Digital Economy Act 2017 included the creation of a broadband Universal Service Order, giving all premises in the UK a legal right to request a minimum standard of broadband connectivity. (Paragraph 39)

7.However, to tackle the immediate lack of digital access we believe that just as those in receipt of income-related benefits can access social tariffs and additional payments to help cover water and electric bills, as part of its new hybrid strategy, the Government should work with internet providers to develop a scheme to provide affordable internet, and suitable, safe devices (not necessarily just a smartphone), on which to use it, to those in poverty and on low incomes. (Paragraph 40)

8.We welcome the UK Government’s introduction of a legal entitlement to digital skills training in England, and agree that such skills are now as essential as basic literacy and numeracy. Undertaking formal qualifications, however, will not be the right solution for everyone. (Paragraph 41)

9.The Government must make a commitment (and an ambitious target) to improve digital literacy central to its new hybrid strategy, and work with charities, skills providers and local authorities to deliver a comprehensive digital skills programme, informed by the knowledge these organisations have about how to meet effectively the varied needs of different communities. (Paragraph 42)

10.The Government should put investment in digital skills at the heart of its new hybrid strategy and ensure that both the school curriculum and adult skills provision adequately meets the needs of the hybrid world. One element of this should be the development of a new Digital Skills for Work Framework for England (and ideally in agreement with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), to tackle the radically altered employment landscape resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Framework must consider the different requirements of different communities and include specific action to tackle the low levels of digital skills amongst disabled people. (Paragraph 50)

11.While we understand that many workplaces, including health settings and schools, were required to introduce online services urgently during the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe that it is unacceptable to expect people to continue to provide digital services without adequate training and resources. (Paragraph 51)

12.The Government should work with training providers and professional bodies to ensure that both the initial training of workers such as teachers and medical professionals and their Continuing Professional Development reflects how digital technology will be an integral part of their working lives. (Paragraph 52)

13.Throughout our inquiry we identified a lack of research on specific issues. We noted that there was insufficient evidence about the experiences of women, and that there was a striking gap in research on the experiences of Black and Asian communities. These communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and we cannot allow people to be further marginalised because policies and interventions designed to prepare for the hybrid world have not been developed to meet their needs. It is only by having comprehensive data, and using the right analytical tools, about the experiences of different communities, and particularly Black and Asian communities, that the Government can formulate policies that are inclusive and deliver for all. As such, we must emphasise that the Government’s new hybrid strategy can only be effective if there is sufficient, accurate data and research to underpin it. (Paragraph 60)

14.The Government should work with UK Research Councils and Higher Education funding bodies to identify and address gaps in the evidence base for both how our increasingly hybrid world is impacting on different communities, and on the effectiveness of policies and interventions developed in response to the digital future. The lack of data on Black and Asian communities’ experiences, alongside those of other minority ethnic communities, should be a particular priority. (Paragraph 61)

15.There is no doubt that digital technology is playing an increasing role in the provision of healthcare services, and will continue to do so. While we welcome the potential for digital technology to allow patients to monitor their own health and for the NHS to develop innovative medical treatments, witnesses consistently told us that there were no clear processes in place for developing, evaluating and implementing these digital healthcare interventions. Without a robust evaluation method it will be very difficult to decide which interventions should be scaled-up and rolled-out nationally, risking some ineffective interventions being rolled-out and some effective interventions not being rolled-out. (Paragraph 62)

16.The Government should ensure that the processes in place to develop, test and evaluate digital health interventions are as robust as those used for physical health interventions. (Paragraph 63)

17.We agree with those witnesses who emphasised the importance of working with the intended audience when developing new skills initiatives and new technology, as well as the innovative use of existing tools and technologies. A single approach to tackling digital inequality or the digital skills gap is bound to fail. Communities have a wealth of knowledge about what will work best for their members, and it is by listening to their views and experiences that we can ensure that interventions will have the biggest, and best, impact. (Paragraph 67)

18.In its hybrid strategy, the Government must commit to listening to the views and experiences of communities and working with them to discuss, develop and implement solutions that meet their needs. (Paragraph 68)

19.In the hybrid world, a safe and reliable internet will become increasingly important for everyone—individuals, businesses, Government—and any threat to digital infrastructure will threaten our ability to work, access essential services, buy groceries online, and access our money through online banking. As such, it is vital that the Government takes action to protect our digital infrastructure from threats, such as cyber-attacks, in the same way that other aspects of Critical National Infrastructure are monitored and protected. (Paragraph 77)

20.As part of its new hybrid strategy, the Government should commit to reviewing the resilience of the UK’s digital infrastructure every two years and to report to Parliament on this review and the action being taken to ensure it is adequately robust for the hybrid world. (Paragraph 78)

21.We have not received much evidence on regulation and digital rights and these issues have not been considered in detail throughout our inquiry. We do not underestimate the complexity of digital regulation and digital rights, but believe that these issues, including digital rights, must be considered by the Government in developing its hybrid strategy. (Paragraph 83)

22.Treating the internet as an essential utility will include regulating it in the same way as other utilities. This will involve challenging the international private sector internet corporations and their supply and pricing policies. Until now, European and North American governments have achieved very little in this area, but the United Kingdom should use its ‘soft power’ strengths to take the lead in developing a new strategy. (Paragraph 84)

23.Given the ever-increasing prevalence of the internet in our lives, there is an urgent need for comprehensive research to explore the relationship between digital technology and wellbeing, particularly amongst children and young people. This research must go beyond screen time alone, and must also consider the experiences of marginalised and vulnerable young people. (Paragraph 89)

24.There is a vast framework of legislation and policy designed to keep us safe in the offline world. Part of preparing for the hybrid world must involve considering how to ensure the same levels of protection in the online world, particularly for children and vulnerable adults. This needs to encompass issues such as child protection, privacy and safeguarding. (Paragraph 90)

25.We welcome the Government’s commitment to publishing an Online Harms Bill and urge it to bring this legislation forward in the next session of Parliament. It will need to reflect the central role that the internet plays in our education, work and social lives, and ensure that provisions are put in place to protect children and vulnerable people online which are at least as robust as those in place offline. (Paragraph 91)

Health

26.COVID-19 resulted in a dramatic shift to healthcare services being delivered online. While this was driven by necessity, some people have benefited from this approach and will want it to continue. Digitally delivered services also present opportunities to save time and treat more people; given the significant existing pressures on mental health services, for example, which are only expected to grow as a result of the pandemic, the increasing adoption of digital interventions may be the only realistic way of providing a service to those who need help, but always ensuring that face-to-face consultations are available as an alternative when clinically preferable or desired by patients. (Paragraph 97)

27.The Government must commit to ensuring health professionals have the training and equipment needed to deliver digitally effective services in the most appropriate way. (Paragraph 98)

28.There is clearly significant potential to improve our health and wellbeing by harnessing both the day-to-day technology that many of us use and by developing healthcare specific products and tools. However, some people may be wary of such technology due to concerns about data privacy and data sharing. As highlighted earlier in this report, these benefits will only be realised if there is a robust system in place for developing, testing and evaluating such approaches, and if significant progress is made on tackling digital inequality and making these technologies accessible to all. (Paragraph 107)

29.We heard from witnesses that some conditions may be missed during remote consultations, while other medical specialisms may not be suitable for virtual appointments. However, digital technology and patient data can also be used to help ensure that a patient’s medical needs are understood more fully. As such, we believe that the hybrid healthcare service must be underpinned by an acknowledgement of the potential opportunities and current shortcomings of digital provision in certain circumstances and a commitment to ensure that all patients receive the very best healthcare service. (Paragraph 114)

30.As part of its new hybrid strategy, the Government should work to develop a genuinely hybrid healthcare service. In implementing a hybrid healthcare service the Government should work with the NHS to evaluate what treatments are suitable to be offered digitally, and provide further funding to research new digital interventions for those specialisms that currently cannot be provided remotely. The Government should also work with the NHS to ensure that current, and future, healthcare systems and processes reflect the new hybrid reality, including the importance of face-to-face provision, and enable patients to move seamlessly between online and offline service provision. (Paragraph 115)

31.The digitally hybrid healthcare service in England should be underpinned by a code of practice giving patients the right to receive services online or offline, as well as guaranteeing a minimum service standard for both online and offline healthcare services, including a right to contact their doctor digitally. In developing this code of practice, the Government should undertake a review of patients’ rights in hybrid healthcare provision, including its impact on accessibility, privacy and the triage between face-to-face and digital provision. (Paragraph 116)

Education in schools

32.We are deeply concerned by the impact of the prolonged period of disrupted study on pupils’ educational outcomes, future education, employment opportunities and their long-term wellbeing. We note that many of our witnesses were unconvinced that the measures announced by UK Government so far are sufficient to address the scale of the problem. (Paragraph 131)

33.The Government must prioritise mitigating the long-term impact of the prolonged period of disrupted learning on children’s life-chances and wellbeing. This should include undertaking research to understand the very different experiences of children from different communities, ensuring that specific funding and support is available to address the growing attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, and establishing a support programme focused on the wellbeing of children and young people post-pandemic. The Government must also recognise the impact that a lack of space to work from home has had on children’s learning, and ensure that this is recognised in their ‘catch-up’ plans for pupils. (Paragraph 132)

34.The pandemic has highlighted that large numbers of children do not have the internet connections, access to devices, or quiet space to be able to work effectively online from home. This does not become irrelevant when schools return: unless action is taken to address this, these children’s inability to complete online homework assignments, undertake additional study and develop the familiarity with working online that will be expected in their future working lives, will lead to an ever widening inequality between them and their more advantaged peers. Unless and until all children have access to the internet, and the skills they need to make use of digital technology, the Government cannot consider itself prepared for the hybrid world. (Paragraph 138)

35.The Government should work with local authorities and schools to fund a specific support programme to ensure that all children have an adequate internet connection and suitable digital devices to work effectively online from home. It must also provide funding to ensure that teachers and schools can make the most of the benefits that an increasing role for online learning offers. The Government should ensure that the curriculum reflects the increasing need for digital skills and provides all children and young people with the skills needed for our hybrid world. (Paragraph 139)

36.In common with the other areas of life considered in this report, it will be important that those who have benefitted from the rapid shift to online—in this case, young disabled people in particular—do not find the option for more flexible, digital study withdrawn once schools are able to fully reopen. (Paragraph 140)

Work

37.The combination of the pandemic and increases in automation and other digital trends is radically changing the number and types of jobs available in different sectors. It is too soon to know how many people will lose their jobs and be unable to quickly gain new ones but it is clear that a very great number of people will need both financial support whilst unemployed and access to training to enable them to obtain new skills fit for the digital/AI era and employment. (Paragraph 157)

38.There will clearly need to be significant action from the Government to tackle future increases in unemployment. We fully endorse the recommendations of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s report Employment and COVID-19: Time for a New Deal. (Paragraph 158)

39.Just as with other aspects of the increasing reliance on digital technology, remote working has the potential to bring both benefits and risks and will impact different people in different ways. If the Government is committed to improving people’s wellbeing, it should consider how to ensure those who would benefit from the continued ability to work more flexibly, including remotely, are enabled to do so. It should also ensure that the tax system does not create barriers to remote working. Employers will also need to consider how to mitigate the risks of any increases in remote working exacerbating inequalities, including the particular impact on women and younger people. (Paragraph 166)

40.The Government should work with employers and trade unions to ensure that decisions about job locations are equality impact assessed, so that people are not excluded from employment opportunities because of their living situation. (Paragraph 167)

41.Many people’s experience of working life has changed significantly in the last year—with many people working from home and others on furlough or working reduced hours. Many others have lost their jobs entirely and there are many more job losses expected in the months and years ahead. (Paragraph 174)

42.The Government should work with disabled people’s organisations to develop a campaign to increase awareness of the Access to Work scheme amongst both employers and disabled people, and ensure that Access to Work assessors have the skills and knowledge required to offer the most appropriate solutions for increasingly digitalised workplaces. (Paragraph 179)

43.At present, it is difficult to anticipate the exact implications of the recent UK Supreme Court judgment in relation to Uber drivers—whether it will lead to voluntary improvements in the working conditions of platform workers, whether those working for other platforms will bring similar court cases, or whether the Government will now enforce existing legislation, or introduce new legislation to protect the employment rights of platform workers. However, we welcome the UK Supreme Court’s judgment as a first step towards ensuring employment rights certainty for platform workers. (Paragraph 186)

44.The Government should introduce new legislation to provide platform workers with defined and enhanced employment rights. (Paragraph 187)

45.Our growing reliance on digital technology has caused, and will continue to cause, a huge shift in the nature of work, which, in turn, will change the nature of our relationship with our employers. For example, the growth of platform working, digital monitoring and ‘epresenteeism’ poses significant risks for our wellbeing in work. However, it seems clear that employment practice, policy and legislation have failed to catch up with the hybrid reality of today’s workplace. As a result, we believe that the Government must intervene to introduce new employment policies and regulation to deal with the current, and future, changes to our working conditions, and the relationship between employee and employer. We do not believe we can rely on existing legislation, even if more forcibly implemented, or on individual legal initiatives such as the Uber court case. (Paragraph 197)

46.We believe that, alongside its new hybrid strategy, the Government should consult on strengthening the current legislative framework for employment rights, to ensure it is suitable for the digital age (including consideration of a right to switch-off, responsibilities for meeting the costs of remote working, rights for platform workers, the use of workplace monitoring and surveillance, and giving workers a right to access data about their performance). (Paragraph 198)

Social interaction

47.For many people the option of maintaining relationships online during the pandemic has been better than nothing; but for those who are unable to leave their houses, perhaps because of a disability or caring responsibility, the growth in online social activities has been a real benefit that they will hope to maintain. It is also clear that most people are keen to resume ‘real world’ social interactions as soon as possible, and that loneliness has increased significantly while our only real outlet for interaction has been digital. (Paragraph 211)

48.Throughout our inquiry, we have heard that essential services, such as healthcare, as well as opportunities to socialise with others, will increasingly be provided online. As such, providing individuals with digital rights will become increasingly more important, as discussed in more detail in Chapter 2. (Paragraph 213)

49.Our increasing reliance on digital technology has only underlined the importance of protecting those physical spaces in communities which provide people with opportunities to meet face-to-face and provide digital infrastructure for communities. Neighbourhoods need to have spaces for social interaction, where people can go about their daily activities in proximity to each other; the modern equivalent of the old ‘town square’. We know that many neighbourhoods have lost libraries and other community spaces in recent years, and the combination of the pandemic and the growth in e-commerce is now resulting in the closure of the sorts of places—shops, banks, cafes, pubs—that allow for incidental social interaction and enable people to feel more connected. We will explore these issues in more depth during our forthcoming inquiry on towns and cities but, given the relationship between social connection and wellbeing, this is a significant threat. More support is needed to facilitate local authorities, third sector organisations and businesses coming together with local communities to rethink how public spaces need to adapt to the hybrid world. (Paragraph 219)

50.As part of its post-pandemic recovery plans, the UK Government should bring together elements of the Future High Streets Fund, Towns Fund, and additional funding, to specifically protect the future of physical and communal spaces, such as libraries and neighbourhood centres, in villages, towns and cities in England. Local authorities should also be encouraged to use this funding to trial new types of community infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, such as the remote working ‘hubs’ mentioned in Chapter 5. Such remote working hubs could also be used to provide space for the community, for local clubs and societies, regular community events and adult learning classes. (Paragraph 220)

51.The Government’s Loneliness Strategy for England states that it does not “attempt to resist how society is changing or try to turn back time,” but rather “looks at what can be done to design in support for social relationships in this changing context.” We have heard evidence that the smart use of digital technology can decrease loneliness, but we also acknowledge that the experience of the pandemic shows the importance of face-to-face interaction and that the Government’s work to address loneliness is more important than ever. The approaches taken in the Loneliness Strategy, and by organisations working in this field, will need to recognise that we are living in a hybrid world, while also acknowledging the importance of face-to-face interaction. (Paragraph 226)

52.In developing its new hybrid strategy, the UK Government should ensure that it interacts with, and complements, its existing Loneliness Strategy for England. (Paragraph 227)





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