Recently we have heard much about the need to “level up” in society and reduce the difference between the haves and have nots. The pandemic of the last twelve months has exposed how ruinously unequal the impact Covid has been on different communities.
Most clearly has been the divide in access to computers and internet access for families supporting their children in home learning during school closures. In addition to an inadequate supply of computers to less well-off households, millions of children struggled to access an affordable internet connection to complete their schoolwork online.
However, it is not just the young who are suffering in the modern digital divide. If you are poor, if you are elderly, and if you have a long-term health condition, you are more likely to have no or limited access to the internet. As banks and building societies close, as claiming benefits and pensions move online, and as high street shops are replaced by internet shopping, a whole section of society struggles to manage their financial and family affairs successfully. The effect of the pandemic has been to accelerate these changes. Without policies to address this digital exclusion, the government has little chance of genuinely levelling up society and help families move out of poverty.
Over one hundred years ago, governments recognised that in a civilised society all its citizens needed access to basic utilities such as clean water, sewerage, and electricity. Today access to adequate low-cost broadband is just as important to be able to function effectively in the twenty first century.
In the last General Election, a proposal for free broadband for all appeared in the manifesto of one political party. Since the impact of the pandemic there have been further calls for action in this area. Other countries such as Germany and Portugal are guaranteeing low-cost rates for basic access to the internet. BT have promised to introduce a similar scheme in Britain for those households claiming Universal Credit. However, it needs our government to make a genuine commitment to provide universal access to affordable broadband if “levelling up” is to be more than just a soundbite.
Malcolm Bride, Cheltenham Activists Network
Article from the Gloucestershire Echo, 3 June 2021