Rishi Sunak’s plans may still leave millions without hope and opportunity

Yesterday, the Chancellor presented his Spending Review for this year. His ambition was clear – Rishi Sunak wants to protect and create jobs, and help those out of work to retrain, restart their careers, and help reboot the economy. I hope the 9 million people in the UK who can’t use the internet without support will see some of the £100 billion extra capital spending help them to gain the skills they need and feel part of the digital recovery.

Whether those people in the places and communities who feel left behind and who would like some levelling up remains to be seen, but the initial details of the Spending Review show promise. The Chancellor announced the Government’s prediction that next year there will be 2.6 million people unemployed, and many of those will end up being unemployed for more than a year. That was a shock moment for me. A new £3 billion ‘Restart’ scheme will be put in place in the new year by the Department for Work and Pensions to help people who’ve been unemployed for over a year. This offers a fantastic opportunity for comprehensive retraining programmes, such as engaging with the basic digital skills so that people are prepared for the future and more confident in their life and their work.

We also saw a renewed push in funding digital infrastructure, with the Government reiterating its commitment to 4G coverage in 95% of the UK by 2025, and a concerted effort to boost broadband access. These are laudable goals which we clearly support. But without investment in boosting people’s digital skills, the proposals look to me like someone firing the starting gun before some of the athletes have even arrived at the track. Of course, let’s invest so we all have brilliant broadband, but I didn’t see investment to help the 9 million people who can’t use it. What we need is a Great Digital Catch Up.

Earlier this year, the Chancellor declared that he and the Government would “not leave anyone without hope and opportunity.” This is the approach people need right now – a compassionate approach – particularly for those who have lost their jobs, and for everyone left behind due to the compound effect of digital exclusion and social challenges. People need support to get back into work, to learn new digital skills, and restart their careers. Let’s hope the Government keeps their word, provides that help, and doesn’t ignore the need to fix the digital divide.

Closing our ‘digital divide’ is crucial to reduce health inequalities

Our NHS-funded programme on ‘Widening Digital Participation in Health and Care’ finished in March 2020. The report we’re launching today shares the lessons we learned; they could not be more timely. 

We know that Covid-19 has changed the dial on digital. At home, at work, in our communities, in hospitals and care settings, digital has been central to our national response, and a lifeline during lockdowns for those who have the digital access, skills and confidence to benefit. 

But too many are still locked out. If we don’t act now – to fix the digital divide – millions of people will be left further behind with deeply damaging consequences for health outcomes, wellbeing, and health inequalities. 

Digital (access, skills, confidence) has become a social determinant of health. 

I’m proud of how much we’ve achieved through both phases of the Widening Digital Participation partnership with NHSX, NHS Digital and NHS England. By putting co-design, communities and collaboration at the centre, we’ve learned so much about how to help people benefit from digital health, including those who already face barriers to accessing health care. 

Our new model of ‘digital health hubs’ – tested and evolved through a series of pathfinders – stands out as a way to improve digital health literacy, and prevent digital exclusion from widening health inequalities. This is something we can – and should – build on. 

During lockdown, people have felt lonelier than ever and have struggled with their physical and mental health. Digital health hubs have been able to tackle this by improving digital health literacy and through the use of digital health tools in a safe, trusted space in the community.

We urgently need a national network of community-led local digital health hubs

It is vital that digital inclusion – and building people’s digital health literacy and understanding –  is at the centre of population health, care and wellbeing strategies.  

Digital inclusion and technologies can play a powerful role in supporting people who are currently poorly-served by healthcare and face wider, systemic barriers to healthy lives and positive patient outcomes. But this won’t happen without sustained effort and investment in communities as well as in health and social care. 

A world-leading digital health service will only deepen and widen health inequalities if we don’t act on digital inclusion now. Let’s #FixtheDigitalDivide.

Helen Milner