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Coronavirus Has Exposed the UK’s Digital Divide

The internet is not accessible for a significant portion of the U.K. population, keeping crucial information regarding COVID-19 shared on health and government websites out of reach. 

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and its human costs become painfully clear, governments are stepping up restrictions on everyday activities to stem the outbreak. Increasingly, the practicalities of implementing their strategies depend heavily on technology.

For example, in Hong Kong, while schools are shut, lessons are conducted online. Across the U.K., staff at professional services businesses have packed up their laptops to work from home. And all around the world, those who are self-isolating rely on video calls to stay connected to loved ones and the internet to order groceries.

In such unusual times, it is easy to assume that technology is acting as a lifeline to normalcy. However, for millions, this is simply not the case. A number of organizations and initiatives, such as DevicesDotNow, have launched to get the most vulnerable online during the crisis. 

The Scale of UK’s Digital Divide

In 2019, the U.K. Consumer Digital Index found that 10% of people in the U.K. — more than five million people — had zero basic digital skills and a further 2% — more than one million adults — had just basic abilities. Overall, this research shows that nearly 12 million people do not have the essential digital skills needed for life in the U.K.

In the same year, the U.K. Office for National Statistics reported that 7% of homes did not have any internet connection. Today, with schools closed to all except the children of key workers — for example, nurses and delivery drivers — children in these homes are offline. That means they cannot access online education resources nor teacher emails with homework.

Additionally, social distancing has slashed demand for some service providers, such as hairdressers and restaurant staff. The resulting drop in income for these groups will force more families to rely on services like food banks, which are often discovered on the internet.

COVID-19 highlights with more urgency than ever before the digital inequalities that exist in the U.K. today, and these digital inequalities can lead to both economic inequalities and health inequalities.

Groups more vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19 are finding access to digital resources to be a real issue. A third of people in their 70s are not online, and people with a disability are more than twice as likely to be offline.

This represents a huge proportion of the U.K. that is unable to access the NHS website for the most reliable and clearly communicated information about COVID-19 and how to reduce their risks. For them, shopping online is not an option and social isolation a real threat.

Demand for Digital Is Growing 

COVID-19 highlights with more urgency than ever before the digital inequalities that exist in the U.K. today. These inequalities have been the focus of FutureDotNow, an organization helping businesses boost digital skills across the U.K. and working to identify and remove the barriers that prevent more people from developing digital skills. Together with Oliver Wyman, a leading global management consultancy, we carried out our own research into the personal stories and experiences behind the digital divide.

Through our research, we see that the people without key digital skills often don’t acknowledge or agree that they are “lacking” anything. Most had no incentive to want to build their digital skills. This aligns with the U.K. Consumer Digital Index, which estimates that three million people who are offline have no interest in the internet whatsoever. Findings from the Office for National Statistics concur, suggesting 61% of those offline do not think they need an internet connection for any reason.

With COVID-19 affecting daily lives, this lack of desire to develop digital skills is waning. The pandemic provides a very real motive to get online to access potentially life-saving advice and information. Community organizations such as those in the Online Centres Network have been inundated with requests for help, but have had to physically close their doors. As such, we need to move without delay to help these organizations do all they can to get vulnerable people and their families online.

A Solution

This has led to the next stage of our work, which forms part of the U.K. government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport response to COVID-19. Through this collaboration, we have created DevicesDotNow, an initiative that aims to stock frontline community organizations with internet-ready devices for distributing to those most in need of them. Devices supplied by the service are preloaded with relevant apps, such as the NHS app and video-calling functions, to make them as easy-to-use as possible after basic training over the phone.

Initiatives like DevicesDotNow will be successful only if businesses get involved and donate tablets, smartphones and laptops. These can be new, spare or old products. Devices for connectivity in the form of SIM cards, dongles and open WiFi hotspots are particularly helpful and would supplement the measures agreed to by telecoms companies to support their vulnerable customers.

Businesses should also consider that many of the people who will receive these devices will be their customers. Helping to move customers online, for example, for banking services or food shopping, may be the only way to keep and acquire customers while social distancing continues.

The Future

For the future, this current experience should serve as a strong lesson that the digital skills gap affects more than the economy and workforce. Digital inequalities lead to both economic inequalities and health inequalities. These health inequalities affect health care resources specifically and our whole society generally. Never has it been more important to focus on digital skills and the benefits they bring to everyone around the country.

Liz Williams

CEO of FutureDotNow @L12_W

Liz Williams is the CEO of Future.Now. She is a long-term campaigner on the importance of everyone realising the benefits of digital technology. She leads BT Group’s digital and social inclusion strategies and cross sector collaborations with government, civil society and other leading businesses, focusing on the needs of young people.

Deborah O’Neill

Partner and UK Head of Digital at Oliver Wyman

Deborah O’Neill is UK Head of Digital and a partner at Oliver Wyman, where she leads complex digital transformations at the world’s largest companies. An expert in untethering businesses from technology systems and approaches no longer fit for purpose, Deborah has recently worked on the build and launch of several Greenfield businesses.

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