It is no exaggeration to say that when we went into lockdown last year, people who lacked digital connections were totally cut off.
During the pandemic I volunteered in the community, doing shopping and collecting prescriptions for those who were shielding. I met dozens of elderly people who did not have access to the internet. Some had a connection and a smart phone but didn’t have the skills to search or to figure out how to order groceries or medicines online. Many simply weren’t able to connect with family and friends.
We often think of digital exclusion as a problem for the elderly, but if the young people are not given the training in digital skills early on then we create another generation who are isolated and disconnected from parts of the modern world.
I am a governor at a school here in Blaenau Gwent. During the pandemic we delivered homework to children whose parents didn’t have devices or internet access, whose children were unable to see or hear from their teachers. We then got funding to deliver devices to families to enable children to attend school from home.
Unfortunately, we were not able to reach every child. Not least because not every child had internet access at home. We need to see reliable high-speed internet across Wales, particularly in rural areas. An internet connection needs to be free to support children’s education where parents cannot afford it.
In so many ways the impact of this pandemic has not been equal, with social exclusion being particularly bad for those with disabilities. Those who have been asked to shield throughout this pandemic have been particularly vulnerable to loneliness and isolation.
So many services are not designed with disabled users in mind. According to NHS statistics, those with a disability are 35% less likely to have the essential digital skills for life compared to those without a disability.
During my volunteering I helped one elderly gentleman who was visually impaired. We asked him to write a shopping list so we could pick up his food, but he wasn’t able to write. He had transcription equipment at home – but due to legal restrictions it was hard to collect his list.
With better equipment and an internet connection, he would not have had this problem. People like this man face barriers every day because of their digital isolation.
People across Wales lack devices, connections, and the skills to enable them to use new technologies.
The Welsh Union Learning Fund has supported thousands of workers to improve their skills, including digital skills.
It is programmes like these which show the value of unions and the power of working to support people to do things they never thought they would be able to do. I’ve seen the difference it can make first hand, and it is major.
But more needs to be done to ensure that everyone can reap the benefits of technology. We must campaign for digital inclusion and support greater access to digital skills training. It is critical that everyone in Wales should have the skills they need to be fully part of the world we live in today.
Finally, we must ensure that we include and hear those who are digitally excluded. During the pandemic they have been silenced and forgotten. We can do better, and we must do better.
The pandemic has been isolating for us all, but having digital connections has made that loneliness just a little bit easier to bear. It is time for us to bring everyone into the digital world.