71.For many of us, one of the defining factors of the pandemic is the increasing proportion of our lives being lived online. Working or learning remotely means a switch to online meetings and lessons. Social distancing requirements meant social lives moved from meeting up in person to online video calls with friends and family, and everything from choirs to book clubs to religious services taking place online. Many healthcare appointments took place, and continue to take place, online, and more of us started, and continue, to shop and bank online. Indeed, the way that the internet enabled many of us to continue to work, learn, trade and access services 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.
72.The potential long-term implications of this rapid acceleration of digital trends was the subject of our next piece of work, and the full report of our inquiry is available on our website.
73.While the easing of social distancing restrictions is enabling many of us to go back to doing more offline, it was clear even before the pandemic that the general trend was for more services to be delivered online. As a result of the pandemic, more organisations have invested in the systems and infrastructure required and more of us have tried more aspects of online service delivery, and remote working and learning, and found there are aspects we want to keep.
74.The future seems likely to be an increasingly blurred blend of online and offline activity. But what we found in our inquiry was that, as a society, we are nowhere near ready for this hybrid world. The pandemic highlighted that far too many children do not have the devices or internet access to enable them to learn online. We heard how too few teachers and health professionals have been trained in planning and delivering online lessons or in conducting consultations online. It became obvious that many people lacked the skills and confidence to access services remotely: in an age where everything from job opportunities to social housing applications and the best consumer deals depend on internet use, this puts people at a significant disadvantage. At a more systemic level, we found current employment legislation lagging behind technological developments, developed at a time before the rights of online gig workers, concerns about the electronic monitoring of employees or demands for a ‘right to switch off’ needed to be considered. Mechanisms for approving and evaluating online and digital physical and mental health interventions seemed lacking in comparison to in-person and pharmaceutical treatments. Despite the array of policies and procedures dedicated to child protection and the safeguarding of vulnerable adults in ‘the real world’, there is no online equivalent.
75.It is clear to us that ‘digital’ has far outgrown the time when it could sit siloed in a single Government department. Every department now needs to consider how every policy and every piece of legislation interacts with the digital world: where there are opportunities for digital innovation to enhance and improve the issues being addressed, and where there are risks. That is why we called for the Cabinet Office to take responsibility, as it does with other cross-cutting issues, for ensuring that rapid action is taken to ensure the United Kingdom can thrive in the hybrid world. We felt this was also the best way to ensure that the inequalities that have been deepened as a result of the shift to online (with poorer people, older people and people from Black and other ethnic minority communities often disadvantaged) were addressed, and not allowed to develop into a new societal divide between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The UK Government rejected this recommendation but, regardless of departmental structures, the need to ensure policy, legislation and society is fit for the post-pandemic hybrid world remains.
76.The pandemic-related acceleration of e-commerce, remote working and learning, online service delivery and business automation highlighted significant gaps in both our policy and legislative framework, and our preparedness as individuals and society for an increasingly online world.
77.Rather than tackle these issues piecemeal, or letting responsibility sit solely in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Government needs to ensure that all departments are reviewing how the policy areas for which they are responsible have changed, and will change, as a result of this digital acceleration, including the impact on inequalities.
79.Our report makes a number of recommendations, many of which would merit future follow-up. In particular, given the relative lack of attention these issues seem to have received elsewhere, we would draw the House’s attention to:
27 COVID-19 Committee, (1st Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 263)
28 HM Government, Government Response to Lords Select Committee on COVID 19 Report “Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World” (5 July 2021) p 1: [accessed 1 December 2021]