On the 23rd March 2020, the British government implemented lockdown restrictions in a drive to reduce the spread of coronavirus. We are all too aware of how this action drastically altered and shaped our daily lives and removed freedoms we previously took for granted.
Swiftly, we acknowledged how technology and digital inclusion could support us as a society, meeting our individual and collective needs across broad areas of our private and public lives. Digital technology allowed us to maintain employment and education, access health and well-being support and services via virtual consultations. Online grocery shopping platforms were inundated quickly, as we tried to find safer ways to access the items we needed, and online banking ensured we could manage our finances.
For many, digital communication platforms also opened up opportunities for friends and families to stay connected and reduced the impact of social isolation. And, whilst technology is always developing and advancing, it can also be challenging to keep up with even when you are a fairly confident user. From my experience working in deprived neighbourhoods in the North East of England as a support worker, this was all too readily the case. As the lockdown and restrictions embedded throughout the UK, challenges arose which highlighted the impacts of digital exclusion for those unable to use and fund the associated technology required to access online resources. For example, with poverty in mind, some of the people I supported simply just couldn’t afford a landline or a mobile phone.
"As the lockdown and restrictions were embedded throughout the UK, challenges arose which highlighted the impacts of digital exclusion for those unable to use and fund the associated technologyNearly 2 million households in the UK are financially unable to fund access to the internet. This suggests a considerable percentage of the population are disadvantaged and marginalised in contrast to others, many of whom live in financial hardship especially within ageing and disabled communities. And, according to the Office of National Statistics, 79% of those in the 65 years plus category are identified as being digitally excluded and Ofcom notes 92% of nondisabled people use and access services online in contrast to 67% of disabled people. This data suggests purely financial factors are not the only consideration and restriction to inhibit older and disabled people from using online services and social networking sites. For example, for many ‘shielded’ households I supported during the pandemic, digital literacy, mental capacity, sensory impairment and confidence are fundamental factors for consideration. Indeed, I have witnessed this at first hand and the impact it has had on the lives of many of the people I support. To highlight their situation, I want to reflect on one of the people I support. By walking in her shoes, I hope it illustrates the challenges experienced by many individuals. I’ve called her Ms A.
“I got a letter from the NHS to tell me I had been identified to shield for 12 weeks. I have heath issues and I am in my 80’s, this was all very unsettling. The letter asked me to register online if I need support, or I could phone and register. The problem is I had no idea of how to do online, I have never owned a mobile phone or a computer. So this option was unsuitable, secondly I have hearing difficulties, and I struggle over the phone and voices I am not familiar with are difficult for me to understand, I get frustrated easily. I didn’t feel confident in using this option in case things went wrong, I really needed help with getting food and my medication – I live on my own and have no family to support me. I kept hearing on the news about online shopping, but how could I do that?
Luckily, my support worker helped and completed my registration online for me. If I hadn’t had support, I don’t know how I would have gotten help with food deliveries and getting my medication. I received weekly food parcels and a volunteer collected my medication and dropped it at my doorstep. I don’t know how other people managed who didn’t have support around them.
Another thing I found difficult was trying to speak with my doctors, it was all computer voices and options I couldn’t remember or understand; I kept hanging up, usually I go in person so this was all new and confusing to me. Again my support worker took time to support me, she contacted my doctors and explained. They called me back and were very patient over the phone, and I was able to get the help I needed.
Now things are changing I needed to get a face mask ready for my shielding ending, but I couldn’t get one without going to the shop. I was afraid to do this, and I couldn’t get one any other way, my support worker sent me an easy to use pattern in the post to make one, it was easy to do as I used to work in dressmaking when I was younger”.
Lastly, we know that 2.2 million people in the UK were advised to ‘shield’ based on clinical risk factors, many of whom would have been from the disabled and older populations where accessing the basics of food and medicine was essential to maintaining their well-being and safety at home. Additionally, for those with few support networks readily available in their communities, shielding presented as a complex situation that was further exacerbated by the ramifications of digital exclusion and the increased risk of social isolation. What Covid-19 has therefore exposed is that there are considerable societal inequalities that urgently need to be addressed to ensure that that the most vulnerable are not further excluded.
And, lastly, if you would like to find out more about how the Housing LIN can support you plan strategically to meet the longer term accommodation needs of people who are homeless or in insecure housing, please email us stating ‘Homeless’ at: firstname.lastname@example.org