It’s almost unthinkable to imagine a world without access to the internet, but imagine what that’s like when the world goes into lockdown.
The internet was not the first thing on her mind when 31 year old Jamila* gathered together a suitcase, her handbag and two small children and crept out of her family home. There are, after all, other things to consider when you’re fleeing a violent marriage, like ‘will he see me? Will he follow us? Where will we spend our first night in safety?’ But when Boris Johnson declared a nationwide lockdown on March 23, it was all she could think about.
Alone, in a bedsit, far from the place she had once called home, she suddenly found herself with no television, no phone and no internet as a dangerous new virus raged across the country. At first, she asked to use her neighbour’s WIFI to access vital information - the risks to children, how it could be spread, what areas were most susceptible - but there were risks to her safety in doing that, and besides, she didn’t want to rattle her new neighbours anymore, who were becoming irritated about the costs. Slowly, day by day, as the world suddenly shuttered, she found herself alone in dwellings no bigger than the bedroom she once shared with her husband. But more crucially missing, the one vital shield everyone else appeared to had: information via the internet.
‘Everything was so hard, because absolutely everything is online,’ she explains via a translator. ‘Buying food, banking, paying bills, learning, keeping in touch, everything. The internet has become a necessity. I felt so bad for my children. They were missing out on their education and talking to their friends, who all had laptops, tablets and the internet which I couldn’t provide for them.’
In the UK, at least 93% of households have access to the internet, according to 2019 Office of National Statistics figures (estimated to have increased to 96% in January and February). But, over lockdown, it became clear there were still large swatches of the country without – around 1.9 million households, in fact, according to the statistics. So while the majority could go along with Johnson’s encouragement of FaceTiming our mothers instead of visiting them on Mother’s Day or shopping online, or helping our children with homework via Google Classroom while carrying on with our jobs thanks to remote working - or even making sense of this strange new world with friends over Zoom - for those offline, they were effectively shut out of society.
‘Lockdown rapidly accelerated the digitalisation of businesses and programmes - and that’s here to stay,’ says social inequality expert Dr Gemma Burgess, who has conducted research into the digital divide and its link to social and economic deprivation at Cambridge University. ‘But what didn’t accelerate is everybody else’s access.’
Now, following a rise in Covid-19 cases, Johnson has issued a new three-tier local lockdown strategy in a bid to limit the 'second wave' of Coronavirus, leaving the majority of the UK under the most restrictive measures (no mixing of households, working from home). With these new rules forecast to last for the next six months, as we move into winter with an already strained NHS expected to be pushed to its limits, what will happen to those who are still offline and left behind?
Why people are offline
The internet was one of the first things to go when Emma, a 35-year-old mother-of-one from Middlesbrough, and her partner fell into financial difficulty two years ago. Their struggles were partly abetted by transferring from Jobseekers Allowance benefits to Universal Credit - a controversial system that streamlined benefits into monthly payments but was plagued by delays and cuts leaving some claimants unable to access their money for weeks or, when they did get their money, worse off than before.
As the end of February approached, Emma watched the news every day, becoming increasingly worried, not just about the virus, but the isolation that would inevitably come once lockdown commenced. 90% of Emma’s money goes on bills, leaving little room to top up credit for the 3G data she requires for the internet.
‘Before, I mostly talked to my family on Facebook a few nights a week,’ she tells us. ‘Then lockdown happened and my aunt, dad, sister and nephews had to ring me instead. I felt bad because I didn’t have enough money to call them. I felt isolated and disconnected from the outside world. I’ve had anxiety my whole life, but not having the internet made it worse.’
Before it physically closed in March, in line with government guidance, Emma had been attending The Hope Foundation, a local education and careers support centre, to study for her English Level One qualification. It was also where she could use the internet, which she was always grateful for due to the cost of providing the internet in her own home and a temperamental phone which she can’t afford to replace.
‘I’m trying to better myself and I was hoping to get a job in care work, but my course was put on Zoom and Google Classroom so I couldn’t do any of it. Not having the internet has pushed back my plan.’
Lloyds Bank's annual Digital Consumer Index suggests that pre-lockdown, 3.6 million people (7% of the population) were almost completely offline. While the over 70s are statistically more likely to be without the internet, 44% of those offline were under 60 with the report stating that it is ‘often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged who are the most likely to be digitally excluded’. The statistics also suggest that four out of every 10 benefit claimants have ‘very low digital engagement’ and that women are more likely to lack online skills.
‘People see WiFi like water: you turn the tap on and out it comes,’ Dr Burgess says. ‘People are baffled and say surely it’s "just old people" [but] this crosses generations. What are people missing out on? Health advice, financial advice, online banking - everything we take for granted.’
Average internet costs are around £30-35 per month, and as we heard from Emma, her monthly income does not allow for this extra expense. She's not alone, with Lloyds suggesting 53% of those offline do not have the disposable income to spend on broadband payments, with the internet not an essential compared to water and electricity. In 2014, research by social and economic wellbeing group the Carnegie Trust, found that more than a third of households in the lowest socioeconomic groups lacked internet access. In Scotland, where the group are based, just half (51%) of households who had an annual income of between £6,000-£10,000 had the internet at home.
Hafsha Shaikh, founder of local charity Smartlyte - which works with women from deprived areas to ensure they have adequate digital skills - has found the same in her community in the West Midlands.
‘These women are steeped in poverty,’ she explains. ‘It’s a case of making the money last until the end of the week to cover the basic necessities which means you haven’t got money to put aside for things like internet connectivity, let alone to buy a device.’
‘Tackling poverty is at the heart of this,’ agrees Dr Burgess. ‘We need to have low cost, reliable broadband access for everybody. If we’re moving to a digital world and "Digital Built Britain" everybody has to have access.’
Being offline cuts the vulnerable off from society
Shaista is a single mum to a five and six-year-old daughter from the West Midlands. For the past three years, she has been slowly rebuilding her life following the suicide of her husband. With the support of Smartlyte, she opened her first bank account, moved into a council house and was granted permanent stay in the UK.
‘Everything has been so hard,’ she explains, when we discuss lockdown. ‘I had my late husband's old laptop, but very little data – 5GB and limited minutes - so if my daughters wanted to watch a cartoon or play a game, I would have to hotspot it from my phone so my data would be used up.’
Shaista was one of many parents left terrified when Johnson closed schools in the spring and the responsibilities of educating children was transferred to parents. How was she supposed to support her daughters with their homework when she didn’t have connectivity or a working device?
Hafsha noticed this impact of the schools closing on many of the women she works with who don’t have the internet at home, ‘Schools were sending out homework on Google Classroom. If you don’t have the internet, how do you access Classroom? If you don’t have IT skills, how do you help your six-year-old? These are women who have very little confidence as it is.’
The problem was exacerbated by the fact Shaista also can’t afford a TV license, so without a TV or the internet, she was missing frequently evolving Coronavirus updates, relying on droplets of information from neighbours and the odd letter from the hospital.
Shaista receives benefits, as a young widow and mother, so both the TV and internet are low on her list of financial priorities. She was also one of the two million Britons shielding during lockdown, due to a debilitating heart condition which will soon require open heart surgery.
Unable to order food online Shaista, like many others, was forced to go to the supermarket and expose herself and her children to the virus, despite being categorised as a ‘vulnerable’ person. According to FutureDotNow – a multi-organisation platform aiming to bridge the digital divide – 250,000 of the one million people who were asked to shield by the government did not have digital access, effectively making it impossible.
‘They don’t have support,’ explains Dr Burgess. ‘A lot of people receive face-to-face support services but with nobody delivering this during lockdown, these people faced a double whammy of that being withdrawn.’
Hannah*, a softly-spoken 26-year-old who came to the UK last year seeking asylum, has felt these effects after she was moved to a hostel with no internet access at the start of lockdown.
‘Before I moved here, I was looking for jobs and planning my future, working with a charity and a BAME support group. During lockdown, they started Zoom sessions but I couldn’t join them.’
Confined to one room (the hostel advised the 200-odd residents to social distance from one another) without the internet for several months, Hannah was unable to follow the news back at home and keep in touch with loved ones. She mainly slept, leaving her room only to shower or fetch food, and take a daily walk outside.
‘If I had the internet, I would have been able to find something to keep me busy, I want to learn British sign language because I know it from my country,’ she says passionately. ‘I could find something to watch on YouTube too. There has been nothing to take my mind off things.’
The offline-poverty cycle
‘Not having the internet is a way of keeping people in poverty,’ Hafsha explains. ‘They can’t access the information to improve and live a better life. If you’re poor, you don’t access learning or even the best comparative deals when shopping… When we don’t give people the internet, we are putting doors up. It prevents people from learning and bettering themselves.’
Dr Burgess agrees, calling digital exclusion the ‘next big issue of multiple deprivation’.
‘Poverty is so deeply connected to getting online, managing your money and claiming your benefits. It is the poor and socially excluded who will be hit the hardest by this and as we come out of lockdown into a recession going forward.’
When questioned on the 1.9 million households offline during lockdown by ELLE UK, a government spokesperson said: ‘It is vital everyone can benefit from digital technology, especially during such challenging times. We brokered a major deal with telecoms firms to remove data caps on broadband services and to work with vulnerable customers and those having difficulty paying bills so they are appropriately supported. We have also brought in new measures to support online learning for disadvantaged children who will receive 4G routers, laptops and tablets to make remote education accessible.’
But this contradicts what experts and community organisations say, who argue fixing the digital divide should be a more urgent priority. The Good Things Foundation are calling for much more, namely the 'investment of £130m over four year (just 2% of superfast broadband infrastructure budget) that will allow 4.5 million more people to be happier, healthier and better off.'
Today we are calling on the Government to close the digital divide, and ensure that no child is left behind in their education because they cannot access the internet or adequate devices at home. @GavinWilliamson pic.twitter.com/4nMWm99ceA
— Siobhain McDonagh MP (@Siobhain_Mc) June 15, 2020
It’s not just those in the community too, even MPs were concerned about the digital divide’s ramifications during lockdown, especially for housebound schoolchildren. In June, a group of MPs and senior education figures wrote to the government, suggesting that 70,000 children were missing out on schoolwork due to a lack of connectivity and software at home.
FutureDotNow recognised the potential ramifications for keeping the poorest people offline during lockdown so launched DevicesDotNow, an emergency response initiative to provide vulnerable households with tablets pre-loaded with the internet, donated by tech companies.
It’s been life-changing for Emma, Shaista and Jamila. Emma resumed her online classes, started managing her Universal Credit account online and played word games to practice her spelling and grammar ahead of resuming her English classes in person. However, the tablet was only pre-loaded with three months worth of data, so she is now concerned about how she will pay for data going forward.
Jamila, meanwhile, has taken up Bhangra dance and Islamic study classes online and her three-year-old has been able to video call her friends from nursery.
‘My daughters are so happy now,' says Shaista who has been practising for her Life in the UK test on the tablet in order to apply for a British passport... when her daughters relinquish the tablet, that is.
'They are on it all the time learning and playing. With no TV or a garden, it helps pass the time. We watch programmes together and speak to my mum and family without worrying. I also look up information about my health and theirs.
‘Life is better and happier.’
If you'd like to contribute to the DevicesDotNow campaign please contact - firstname.lastname@example.org
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