Net losses

When physical shops and services close during a pandemic, it becomes clearer than ever that internet access is vital. So what happens to the nine million people living in digital poverty?

Hero image

How would we have coped without devices during lockdown? We order online to avoid supermarkets, we pay our bills, order prescriptions and apply for financial support, and we stay connected through video calls and social media. During the pandemic 80 per cent of adults have reported that being online was a vital support mechanism.

“It takes 45 minutes to do a whole form for housing benefit. For those with a device, it uses a lot of data.”

It has never been clearer that reliable internet access is an absolute necessity in the society we live in. Yet, as progress marches forth, the gap between it and those left behind grows ever wider – according to research by digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation an estimated nine million people are now living in digital poverty in the UK. Whole communities are excluded from the digital world and one in 10 households have no internet access. As more businesses focus on digital transformation, the figures stand to get much worse.

Blackpool is home to some of Britain’s most deprived boroughs. When strict first lockdown measures came in on 23 March, libraries and community centres offering digital access were forced to close their doors, leaving the poorest people locked out of services they rely on.

Lynn Williams, leader of Blackpool Council, says that digital inclusion in disadvantaged communities was a real problem before and during the pandemic. Common complaints include not being able to access online services such as banking, ordering repeat prescriptions and applying for benefits.

“Not only could some people not afford a new device and data, but they didn’t know how to get started online,” she says.

Blackpool Council is in the process of launching a pilot scheme to help residents get online. Individuals with limited digital access will receive a tablet and be supported by a volunteer mentor. In the meantime the gap is being plugged by the voluntary sector.

Blackpool’s Voice is a charity that works with some of the town’s most vulnerable residents. Since opening during the pandemic, the drop-in centre has helped people access the support they need for a range of issues, including housing, mental health, addiction and domestic violence. Digital exclusion is just one extra problem for the people it supports.

“We’ve been filling in benefit forms for people because they can’t get online,” says Sue Davies, founder of Blackpool’s Voice. “It takes 45 minutes to do a whole form for housing benefit. For the ones that have a device, it uses a lot of data, which costs a lot of money. They can’t get a job, they’re struggling and if they can’t get their benefits they end up on the street.”

Located just off Blackpool’s glittering Golden Mile, the centre is worlds away from the tourist-centred glitz. Davies aims to build trust and welcome each individual without judgement. She and her team of volunteers serve a community that feels marginalised in an increasingly digital society.

One such resident is Peter Owens*, 43, who is nursing a cup of tea when Davies calls him over to help him tackle the problems that have brought him to her centre. He has no money, and his Universal Credit advance payment has been delayed. He can’t access his account to find out why.

Davies sets about helping Owens to navigate a system she says is designed to trip him up at every step.

Owens says he was unable to secure an appointment at the Jobcentre during lockdown so an advisor could sit down with him and go through the application on the screen. “There’s nowhere to go and do this stuff,” he says. “I’ve borrowed a mate’s iPad before. I could use that. It’s a bit easier, but computers just don’t make sense to me.”

Blackpool Council has invested in public access terminals at libraries, so that local residents can get online. During the pandemic they have been closed or are running significantly reduced services but for Owens, who is one of the 11.7 million people in the UK lacking basic digital skills, even in normal circumstances they can feel intimidating.

“I’m embarrassed to go in and ask for help,” he admits. “I’m computer illiterate. I don’t know how to go online and I’m too old to learn. I don’t know anyone that uses a library – they all feel the same way.”

Owens is frustrated that so much has gone digital, but can’t see how being online will help him. He is not alone – 2020 survey data shows that 48 per cent of people who have never used the internet describe having no interest in learning.

Motivation is a significant barrier, especially in the poorest communities where people may have had bad experiences in formal education that make them reluctant to learn. Al Mathers, head of research at Good Things Foundation, considers the key to success is to find a “personal hook”.

“It can’t be about what they have to do. It needs to be about sitting down in a comfortable environment and showing them how the internet can help to enrich their lives,” she explains.

Davies gives a clear picture of how the lack of digital skills feeds into wider feelings of anxiety at a time when mental health is in crisis. For many service users, she says, technology exacerbates feelings of stress when they are already feeling vulnerable.

“They’re trying to deal with often terrible situations and emotions, and they’re hitting these walls all the time. It can come down to just typing everything out on a laptop and all of a sudden the internet drops. Or they press a button and it deletes everything. When you’ve got major depression, everything like this becomes a battle. It’s enough to send them over the edge.”

Universal Credit received more than 1.8 million new claims in the first month of lockdown. The extra pressure on helplines meant callers were kept on hold for hours, The “digital by default” benefit has long been criticised for putting up barriers for claimants without internet access.

Blackpool has the highest rate of joblessness in the country, with over 11 per cent of people claiming unemployment benefits. Tracy Hopkins, CEO of Citizens Advice Blackpool, says it is making sure people can use the internet to claim benefits they are entitled to. She adds that this work is “absolutely vital” now lockdown has been renewed and more people are unable to work or finding themselves made redundant.

The gradual shift to an online experience means that many organisations have scaled back on resources for telephone and in-store support. Martyn James, of complaints website Resolver, argues that businesses have used the pandemic as an excuse to stop offering customer service.

“Many firms do not offer phone numbers or email addresses on the website and, instead, force customers to speak to a chatbot.”

A survey of UK banks this year found that plans to digitally transform services have been fast-tracked, with 73 per cent spending £50,000 or more on improving their digital and online customer services. One in three have invested between £500,000 and £2 million. Now this process has been accelerated, it seems unlikely to return to how things were before the pandemic. For those without internet access, this creates further problems.

Sharon Macbride*, a cleaner working in a bed and breakfast on Blackpool Promenade, had her hours reduced in March. She learned she was entitled to request a Covid payment holiday with her credit provider.

“When I called the phone number, it was just an automated message that gave me a couple of options, but there was no option for a payment holiday. There was nowhere you could speak to an operator. It just directed me to their website.

“It took me about an hour to sort this thing out, as the website was really hard to use on my phone and it kept cutting out. And after that, they just kept on taking money out.”

Macbride says she spent £60 on mobile top-ups while she tried to resolve the issue.

“I kept buying credit for my phone to use their website but, to be honest, I’m not very good with the internet and I struggled to get anywhere. I just felt annoyed really. Everyone was getting these payment holidays and I felt like I was left out because I’m not on the internet.”

As we face a winter of further restrictions, how can we make sure that vulnerable people are not left in the dark? By listening to people in the community, can society become more digitally inclusive? We have learnt that in 2020, digital access is just as essential as heating and clothing.

Hopkins says: “Access to reliable internet and devices helps to ensure people are able to participate in activities that many of us take for granted. This is particularly important for vulnerable people who should be able to shop and bank online, access video communication to stay in touch with friends and family, and be able to pay bills and claim benefits.”

To find support in your area go to or telephone 0114 349 1666. For further resources and support visit: and Blackpool’s Voice is based at 44 Foxhall Rd, Blackpool FY1 5AD ( * Some names have been changed to protect identities

Main image: Sue Davies and the team at Blackpool’s Voice, tackling digital exclusion. (Brian Roberts)

Interact: Responses to Net losses

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.