Retrain unused NHS volunteers to teach digital skills in lockdown, urges think tank

In a commentary published today, the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) urges the Government to set up a nationally coordinated volunteer service to teach digital skills to those most at risk of digital exclusion during the lockdown.

In the UK, around 11.9 million people lack the digital skills they need for everyday life. Older adults, who are more likely to be at higher risk of contracting or developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, are also more likely to be digitally excluded, with just 47% of adults aged 75 years and over recently having used the internet. This means a significant proportion of people self-isolating may be stuck in their homes with limited options to avoid social isolation, get essentials and stay safe.

ILC, the UK’s specialist think tank on the impact of longevity on society, warns that the current pandemic has made the consequences of digital exclusion more severe and that failing to equip people with the necessary digital skills they need could significantly exacerbate existing health inequalities. While many people are using the internet and making use of new apps and technologies to access essentials, contact healthcare professionals and socially connect, those who are digitally excluded may have to risk their lives by physically going outside to access the products and services they need.

While there have been efforts by businesses and local government to make products and services more inclusive and useable during the lockdown, ILC calls on Government to coordinate a nation-wide volunteer service, making use of the NHS volunteers who have yet to be called into action, to address digital exclusion and the growing inequalities it could incur.

Sophia Dimitriadis, Research Fellow, ILC argues:

“The digital divide is very real. And it’s not just preventing people from downloading the newest app or shopping online, but in the context of the ongoing pandemic, it is putting the lives and health of the digitally excluded on the line.”

“If we fail to equip people with the digital skills they need, digital exclusion, often linked to social exclusion and poor health, will exacerbate ongoing health inequalities. This is simply not acceptable.”

“Fortunately, there’s a lot of goodwill out there and people want to help. Businesses and charities across the country have been working hard to support those left behind, and the response to the call for volunteers to support the NHS has been overwhelming. But we can’t afford to leave this to chance.”

“We need a concerted effort by Government to support the digitally excluded. With the untapped potential of the majority of the 750,000 volunteers signed up to support the NHS, let’s organise a nationwide service to ensure the most vulnerable in society aren’t being further left behind in these challenging times.”

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