Derek Walker argues that being able to go online should be a fundamental right and highlights the disparities in access across Wales.
In March last year, the BBC published an article asking the question: What if Covid-19 and the accompanying lockdowns had happened in 2005?
A world before smartphones and social media, and where “many of the digital tools we use to keep connected… did not exist or were only available to the few”.
There is no doubt that working, shopping and socialising have been made far easier during the pandemic because of access to the internet.
And crucially, being online has enabled people to find lots of information about the disease as well as about the availability of health and care services.
But many people have not benefited. This terrible situation has been made even more difficult because many of us are still not able to use the internet.
The National Survey for Wales 2019/20 found that 10% of people in Wales do not use the internet. This is down from 23% in 2012/13 but falls far short of where Wales needs to be to become a digitally inclusive nation.
What is even more concerning is that those that are most vulnerable to COVID 19 are also far more likely to not be internet users. The proportion of people who do not use the internet rises to 48% for those aged 75 and older, and 18% for those 50 and older.
“It is not only older people – 19% of disabled people and 17% of social housing tenants are also digitally excluded.”
Public Health Wales reported that two thirds of people in Wales used digital technology to support their health in 2019. While 87% of 16–29-year-olds reported using digital technology for their health, this fell to just 24% of those aged 70 and older.
It is not only older people – 19% of disabled people and 17% of social housing tenants are also digitally excluded.
There are many potential reasons that people are not able to get online, but four of the main barriers are cost, connectivity, skills and motivation.
In ordinary times, it is heartbreaking that so many people continue to be digitally excluded.
But the pandemic has meant this digital divide is no longer acceptable. All of us need digital access to be able to transact, communicate and get information.
Thankfully, action is being taken which is making a difference. Welsh Government is financing a large- scale digital inclusion programme, called ‘Digital Communities Wales: Digital Confidence, Health and Well-being’.
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The programme is being delivered by the Wales Co-operative Centre, and provides expert advice to organisations that are working with people who could benefit from having basic digital skills.
But programmes like this rely on other organisations getting involved and playing their part in engaging under-represented groups facing digital exclusion.
One sector that has really stepped up has been social housing.
Many housing associations across Wales are taking action to ensure residents can get online. Newydd Housing Association has set up a significant digital project to help tenants and the wider community with support, advice, training and equipment, and the impact has been impressive.
ClwydAlyn Housing Association has trained employees to be ‘Digital Champions’. As digital champions, employees go on to provide training sessions to residents, helping them to do what they want to be able to do, such as using social media and online calendars.
On top of this, kit has been provided to sheltered housing schemes in Ruthin, Amlwch and Abergele, giving residents access to devices they had never had before.
“It would be unacceptable if 10% of the population did not have water or power; and it is no longer tolerable that so many people cannot access the internet.”
It is welcome that Community Housing Cymru has made the issue of digital inclusion a key element of their 2021 Senedd election manifesto, Home.
CHC’s manifesto states that “the next Welsh Government should put in place measures to end digital exclusion. This should include upgrading requirements for all new homes to include digital connectivity as standard, alongside investment in digital infrastructure and skills support to ensure that all can access the internet as a key public service.”
Few of us could argue that internet access has not become an essential utility. It would be unacceptable if 10% of the population did not have water or power; and it is no longer tolerable that so many people cannot access the internet.
We know from our experience of delivering Digital Communities Wales that we need to solve this by working together, and by putting those with lived experience of being digitally excluded at the heart of what we do.
The Welsh Government needs to build on the commitment of Digital Communities Wales and put in place further measures to end digital exclusion.
Conversations are ongoing with Welsh housing associations, the Welsh Government and partners like Wales Co-Operative Centre, to establish the steps that need to be taken to include digital connectivity as a requirement for all new homes, and the cost implication of making that happen over the long term.
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