Pandemic exposes deep divide in east’s digital economy

BT has launched a free Skills for Tomorrow programme to give people access to vital digital skills Picture: BT

BT has launched a free Skills for Tomorrow programme to give people access to vital digital skills Picture: BT - Credit: Archant

The digital divide is being felt more strongly in the East of England as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a survey suggests.

Communications giant BT has carried out a study which reveals that members of the public think more should be done to ensure that everyone has access to online technology.

The proportion of people in the region who were unhappy with current provision was 37% – greater than for the UK as a whole at 34%.

It also found 27% of East of England adults versus 26% nationally said they had experienced some poor mental health and felt isolated due to a lack of digital skills or online access during lockdown.

MORE – Full fibre broadband set to be rolled out to more homes across East AngliaIf a second lockdown were to occur, 13% of adults in the East of England - in line with the national average – said they’d be anxious that they’d not be able to stay connected to their friends and family online, according to the survey of 2000 adults carried out in October 2020, which has been published to coincide with Get Online Week from October 19 to 26.

A study by Lloyds Bank estimates that 9m people in the UK can’t use the internet or their device without help, and 4.7m people have no digital skills at all.

The pandemic has compounded this, leaving people without online skills or access even more isolated than the rest of the population – and young people being particularly badly affected, said BT.

With the crisis still ongoing, 28% of people in the East of England (vs 28% UK) admitted they felt more anxious about staying in touch with friends or family or feeling isolated due to a lack of digital skills. Younger people felt most vulnerable, with almost half (47%) worrying the most, compared to 13% of over 55s.

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The research also found more than a quarter of people worry they will not be able to afford new technology if their devices break, including 27% 16-24-year-olds who were concerned the most.

BT Group director of digital impact Professor Kerensa Jennings said: “Now more than ever, we need to help improve digital literacy and access to technology, for everyone. While we don’t know how the situation will evolve, our free Skills for Tomorrow programme is helping ensure people can have access to the right resources to learn vital skills to help them stay connected during this period. Even small improvements can empower people with the confidence to order their groceries online or stay in touch with loved ones. We all have a part to play in ensuring everyone has access to the technology they need.”

Helen Milner, chief executive of Good Things Foundation, said it was time to fix the UK’s digital divide.

“All age categories are at risk of being isolated during lockdown due to poor digital skills – even the generation we consider ‘digitally native’,” she said. “With help from the government, and by coming together as a community, we can all take responsibility to ensure our loved ones are ready to face extended self-isolation and lockdown measures in the coming months, so no one is left behind.”