Nearly one in 10 Suffolk people never use the internet, figures show
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Shock figures have revealed that nearly one in 10 people in Suffolk do not have access to the internet - at the very time Covid-19 means they need it more than ever.
Being online has become an essential part of modern life, not just for work but also to access vital community services and stay in contact with friends and relatives.
If not already essential, it has arguably become even more critical during the coronavirus crisis - with restricted movement during lockdown meaning the internet has been the only way to see loved ones, buy essentials and get necessary support.
Yet despite its importance to everyday life, figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that as of 2019 - the most recent data available - 8.3% of people in Suffolk had not used the internet for three months, or had never used it at all.
The figures are a dramatic improvement on just a few years earlier. In 2014, nearly one in five - 17.2% - of people in Suffolk had not been online for at least three months. In 2018, the figure was 10%.
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There are hopes the coronavirus crisis could have helped to improve that figure further, as those nervous about the technology before may have bitten the bullet during lockdown.
The ONS data shows the dominant reason why people don’t use the internet is because they felt they “didn’t need to use those connected devices or systems” - something that may well have changed during the pandemic.
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Yet Deborah Williams - operations manager at Suffok-based Realise Futures Learning and Development - said Covid-19 may have actually exacerbated the problem for those who rely on public computers in libraries and other settings, because they do not have laptops, tablets or mobiles at home.
“This has been and continues to be a huge issue with our learners,” she said.
“We have found that only about 33% of our learners can learn online.
“Many have no internet access and no personal computer and the pandemic has meant that they have not been able to access public computers.
“Where people have mobile phones, they are often on pay as you go contracts with limited data.
“As a result, whilst we have run many very successful online courses over the past few months, we have been supporting the majority of our learners by phone and by post to continue their learning and to ensure that they are not missing out.
“In this age where everything from Universal Credit to job applications are online, we are well placed to give people the skills to use technology - and we are launching a new range of Essential Digital Skills for Life qualifications this autumn.
“But that doesn’t help if people cannot afford to be online or if they live in one of the many parts of Suffolk where broadband connectivity, and even mobile phone coverage, is patchy at best.”
She praised the government for providing a new entitlement to digital learning up to level two, at no cost to individuals.
But she said: “There needs to be a matching initiative to increase access to digital devices and broadband connectivity or people will continue to be left behind and disadvantaged, especially in rural areas.”
At the start of 2020, just over 95% of Suffolk properties had access to superfast broadband, which is defined as having a speed of more than 30Mbps.
That figure should rise to 98% of properties under the existing contract between the county and BT Openreach by the end of this year.
A spokesman for Good Things Foundation, which campaigns to improve social inclusion through access to digital technology, said: “The internet is an essential part of modern life.
“A lack of digital skills and access has a huge negative impact on a person’s life, leading to poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy, increased loneliness and social isolation, and less access to jobs and education.
“There are 9million UK adults still struggling to use the internet, unable to perform tasks like turning on a device, connecting to wi-fi or opening an app.
“There are tough challenges ahead in order for us to reach and engage these people, in turn reducing the crippling effects of social isolation thrown so sharply into focus by the compound effect of the Covid-19 crisis.
“But by prioritising outreach and inclusion, and fixing the skills and inclusion gap, we can make significant progress in tackling digital exclusion and reducing this number.”