The UK’s Digital Divide: How Is It Intensifying After COVID-19?

Piers Kelly

As face-to-face contact and physical interactions were all but eradicated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the digital divide in the UK intensified. Here, we discuss what the digital divide is, its scale within the UK, the factors that influence it — including COVID-19 — and what can be done to address it.

using a laptop digital divide


What Is the Digital Divide and How Has COVID-19 Impacted It?

At its core, the digital divide is the gap between those who use technology and those that don’t. It also signifies how digital skills can vary for different parts of the population, as well as outlining some of the barriers to digital inclusion. 

During the pandemic, the internet and digital devices played an important role in allowing people to access services and information, attend medical appointments and communicate with friends and family. Normal, everyday life became inaccessible for some parts of society without access to the internet or digital devices.

Although one of the most digitally advanced countries, the COVID-19 pandemic only intensified the UK’s already existent digital divide. 

Older generations, who typically use the internet less, became even more isolated. Poorer areas suffered due to not being able to afford digital access, which in turn impacted schoolchildren learning from home. Those in rural areas experienced a lack of broadband availability.


What Are the Barriers to Digital Inclusion?

While digital skills traditionally correlated to generations, with those in older generations less likely to adopt or use technology and younger generations only ever living in a technological-advanced world, this rule doesn’t fit every area of UK society.

Digital exclusion isn’t limited to one area of society. Instead, there are some barriers to access and more than one may affect an individual at any one time.

According to the NHS, these can include:

  • Access: Whether an individual has access to the internet or a digital device.
  • Skills: Whether an individual has the skills needed to use the internet or digital services and devices.
  • Confidence: Some individuals may not have experience using the internet or a digital device. They may also fear online crime.
  • Motivation: Some individuals simply aren’t motivated or interested in using technology.
  • Socioeconomic status: Not everybody can afford the internet or digital devices.
  • Region: There may be more connectivity or digital infrastructure issues in certain areas.


How the UK Government Can Reduce the Digital Divide

It’s vital the government adopts and continues to implement strategies and initiatives to help reduce the digital divide.

These may be:


Building Greater Connectivity

In the National Infrastructure Strategy, the UK government outlined its target for at least 85% of UK premises having access to gigabit-broadband by 2025, increasing the overall availability and accessibility of the internet for the public.

The government also created the Shared Rural Network (SRN) in March 2020 to increase 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by 2025. This was to close the rural and urban connectivity gap, which currently stands at 81% and 92%, respectively.

Tipped to ‘close the digital divide’, 5G is gaining much attention. As 5G connectivity becomes more readily available across the UK, the public should access the internet and use digital devices more quickly, in more areas and for a lower cost.


Digital Transformation Projects

In 2021, we live in a digital world and as time passes, the digital transformations will only continue. 

Digital transformation projects within national and local governments aim to develop digital tools and solutions that support the wider work to transform public services, making them more accessible and easier to use for everyone.


Greater Support for Digital Learning Technology

Increasing the effective use of technology in low to minimal use groups is key to tackling the digital divide, but the level of support for digital learning remains a key barrier.

Although the UK government has already deployed the ‘Skills Toolkit’, continuous focus on how the government can improve digital learning is key to reducing the digital divide. 


Economic Stimulus Packages

There’s a strong link between poverty and digital exclusion, which is why the use of economic stimulus packages to minimise the digital divide is essential. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK in March 2020, only 51% of UK households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 had home internet access, compared with 99% of households with an income over £40,000.

Several providers have started to introduce reduced tariffs for low-income households, allowing increased digital and internet access, reducing the digital divide gap. In the long term, government-supported benefits may be needed for those with limited digital access.


The Future of the UK’s Digital Divide

Tackling the digital divide in the UK will be crucial when looking at the bigger picture. Not only will it help foster an advanced digital economy, but it’ll also be a crucial factor when addressing social and economic inequalities to level up every community.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to exacerbate digital gaps in some parts of society, there’s also evidence to show that more people adopted a digital lifestyle, as they had no other choice but to move daily activities online during lockdowns.

The digital divide will continue to be a topic for discussion. However, with greater government investment and increased initiatives, we could see the gap begin to close.


Join the Conversation about the Digital Evolution of the Public Sector

If you’re looking to meet with like-minded professionals to discuss enhancing government to citizen engagement through digital evolution, then our Digital Government event is the place. This year, we’ll look at looks at the progress made on the journey to a digitally enabled state, as well as the challenges which still need to be overcome. Simply click the link below to confirm your place.

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