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When expected new COVID-19 rules kick in, digitally excluded people in the Midlands, North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber will be hardest hit, says charity.

The UK’s leading digital inclusion charity is warning that millions of people face a miserable Winter ‘double-whammy’ of digital exclusion and tougher regional lockdowns.

With 9 million people across the UK still stranded by the digital divide and unable to fully use the internet (source: Lloyds Consumer Digital Index 2020), it’s those in the Midlands and North of England who will continue to be most affected – leaving them isolated, cut off from essential support, experiencing deteriorating mental health, and financially worse off.

New analysis for Good Things Foundation by Professor Simeon Yates shows that 11.4 million people in the Midlands, North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber are either offline [3.6m] or use the internet in a very limited way [7.8m]* – locking them out of critical lifelines such as GP appointments, Government support schemes and job retraining. And, that only 18% of people in the North East of England can use the internet to its full potential compared to 49% in the South East.

The charity is calling on the Government to commit to levelling up the UK’s deep digital divide with a Great Catch Up, helping 4.5 million people get digitally included and delivering £1.92 billion back into the UK economy.

Those who stand to be hit hardest by new government lockdown rules are people like Annette, 60, from Kings Heath, Birmingham, who found herself cut off with no money earlier this year.

Annette, who has had three strokes, and suffers from COPD, diabetes and chronic arthritis, says: “I was so depressed, for three days I didn’t get out of bed. The staff from my local online centre [Smartlyte] gave me a tablet and showed me how to use it, and it saved my life.

“The tablet gives me a chance to be part of my grandkids’ lives, and I didn’t have that before. I was so down, I was suicidal. I take a lot of medication and at one point I was going to take it all, but staff from the centre talked me out of it.

“It’s so lonely when you have got just four walls. I couldn’t go out, I was a prisoner in my own home.”

Mable, 91, lives in Stockport in her one-bedroom flat. Mable wasn’t able to leave her home for weeks during the last lockdown. “I do get a little bit down sometimes because of my illness. At night is when I get lonely.”

And Army veteran Jason, 34, from Middlesbrough, suffers anxiety and has struggled financially due to being unable to access his online Universal Credit account. Jason says: “Lockdown meant my world became my flat and I only had limited access to support staff. I felt very lonely.”

Helen Milner OBE, Good Things Foundation Chief Executive, says: “The pandemic has made digital skills critical for everyone in the UK – which is why we urgently need a Great Catch Up to help people cross the digital divide. With 9 million people across the country still unable to fully use the internet, we’re in danger of heading back to the dark lockdown days of April – where people were, shockingly, being forced to choose between data and food.

“Through our work, we saw millions of people being locked out of access to GP appointments, social contact and essential Government services. We can’t let this happen again – but the real fear is this is where we are heading unless the Government acts swiftly, working together with businesses and other organisations like ourselves to help more people get across the digital divide.”

Good Things Foundation’s call to level up on digital skills is being backed by 33 MPs including several Conservatives in Red Wall areas, such as Jonathan Gullis (Stoke North), Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) and Christian Wakeford (Bury South), who are calling for a parliamentary debate on the issue. The backbench motion is led by former Conservative Minister Esther McVey and Labour’s Julie Elliot, chair of the Digital Skills APPG.

* Analysis of the most recent Ofcom data on Adults’ Media Use & Literacy (2019 survey data, released 2020) by Prof Simeon Yates, The University of Liverpool: proportion of population in England from within North West, North East, East and West Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humber regional areas who are offline (‘non-users’), who use the Internet for a very limited number of activities (‘limited users’) and who can use the internet to its full potential (‘extensive users’). See here for further information.

Breakdown of people off-line by region as follows;

North East – 140,523 (population 2,669,941)
North West – 1,181.342 (7,341,196)
Yorkshire and Humber – 827,880 (5,502.967)
East Midlands – 483,593 (4,835,928)
West Midlands – 927,193 (5,934,037)