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Food and shelter remain the most important factors for survival, but in 21st century Britain, access to the internet is running a close second.

Lindsey Hall, on what we’ve learnt one month on from lockdown…

This Thursday, 23rd April is one of those dates we’d probably all prefer to forget. It is now one month since lockdown began, a strange anniversary, not least because no-one knows if this is the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning or just a moment in time that will be forgotten when the history of the pandemic is written in years to come.

Both my parents were children during WW2 and I always wondered what it was like to live through times which required the whole population to voluntarily change their daily lives. Their accounts were interesting – the abnormal became normal very quickly; many of the restrictions meant a lot of life was quite dull; excitements stood out and what was important changed. A roof over your head and food, especially food that tasted good and was plentiful, was highly prized.

The current crisis is not a war. As human beings we are all in this together, working hard in multiple ways to control and defeat a particularly aggressive virus, but there are parallels in the day to day experience.

Covid-19 is limiting and changing our lives. It now feels normal to leave a 2 metre gap every time we meet anyone and to work from home. Food and a safe place to live are critical and people are finding all sorts of ways to communicate and overcome boredom, largely online. In reality, it’s not that bad if you live in a reasonably spacious house, can afford food, are healthy and can access the internet.

However, as Emily Maitlis eloquently said about the virus, “They tell us it is a great leveller, it’s not.” And she’s right. Inevitably, the most vulnerable are hardest hit – imagine being in inadequate housing, in poor health, relying on foodbanks and without access to the internet. Housing, food and health are all being talked about but surprisingly, there is very little recognition of the consequences of no internet access.

Last week it was brought home to us. Out of the blue we were contacted by someone desperate to find access to a computer to claim Universal Credit. Normally he’d go to the library or the Job Centre, but both are shut. He has no access to technology at home.

On the same day, we heard there is plenty of food and people to distribute it, but people are still falling through the gaps. Their lack of connectivity means they don’t know what’s available and others don’t know they need it. There is an assumption that all young people love tech and are constantly online. This is far from the case particularly for the most vulnerable and then of course there are older people, following instructions to stay at home but then having to go to the shops because they can’t order online.

Of course, food and shelter remain the most important factors for survival but in 21st century Britain, access to the internet is running a close second. Indeed, without the

internet, access to the basics is compromised. What is even more shocking is the numbers of people affected. In Plymouth alone, 8% of the population, 21,000 people do not have access to the internet. Nationally, it is 1.9 million households.

So, what can we do about it? Some of it is pretty straightforward. We opened up our office and let the person use a laptop to make his Universal Credit claim. Unsurprisingly, he was hugely relieved.

It is a simple thing to do and every Thursday morning for the foreseeable future we will open our offices at Devonport Guildhall, Plymouth and 26 Fore St, Liskeard and offer ‘socially distanced’ access to the internet for people who need it. Having scratched the surface, we are finding others who are quietly trying to help, donating tablets for older people, repairing unused and broken laptops to be distributed and the brilliant DevicesDotNow campaign to get technology to people who need it.

It is all a bit under the radar and we’d love to work with others to change this. We’re starting with a webinar ‘We need to talk about Digital Inequality’ on Thursday 30th April at 2 pm, do join us if you can and maybe together we can make some noise and galvanise government and others to get much needed resources to the people who need them.

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