The Government should consider new health and employment rights to protect wellbeing in the digital world, according to a parliamentary select committee.
The Select Committee on COVID-19 has published its report, Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World, and warns that more needs to be done to ensure that we all benefit from our increasing reliance on digital technology post-pandemic and that it does not lead to increasing inequality and marginalisation.
For many people, it is hard to imagine what the last year would have been like without the internet: it became a lifeline that enabled people to stay in touch with friends and family, for shops to continue to trade, for many to continue to work, and for everything from GP appointments, to education, to debates in the House of Lords, to take place without the infection risk from meeting with others.
However, as 11 per cent of households (equating to 2.8 million households) do not have internet access, nine million people are unable to access the internet by themselves, 11.7 million people lack the digital skills for everyday life and almost half of ‘non-users’ have a disability or long-standing health issue – there is a real risk that any increasing reliance on digital technology will exacerbate existing inequalities.
The Committee’s report sets out a range of recommendations to maximise the opportunities, and mitigate the risks, of the hybrid world.
It believes the Government should develop a new Hybrid Strategy, which recognises that all aspects of our lives are, and will increasingly be, a hybrid blend of online and offline interactions. As with other critical issues that affect all Government departments, responsibility for a new hybrid strategy should sit with the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister.
It should consider introducing a legal right to internet access and digital infrastructure, but to tackle the immediate lack of digital access the Government should work with internet providers to develop a scheme to provide affordable internet access to those in poverty and on low incomes.
The Government should develop a genuinely hybrid healthcare service, underpinned by a code of practice giving patients the right to receive services online or offline and guaranteeing a minimum service standard for both offline and online healthcare services. In developing the code of practice, the Government should undertake a review of patients’ rights in hybrid healthcare provision, including its impact on accessibility, privacy and the triage between face-to-face and digital provision.
Alongside its new hybrid strategy, the Government should consult on strengthening the current legislative framework for employment rights, to ensure it is suitable for the digital age, as well as introducing new legislation to provide platform works with enhanced employment rights.
The Chair of the Committee, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho said: “The Government’s current digital strategy is unfit for purpose to operate in our new hybrid post-pandemic society and it must adopt a new, truly hybrid strategy. The development of this new strategy must be led centrally from the Cabinet Office, alongside the recognition that this issue goes beyond being considered from a purely ‘digital’ perspective and must be more fundamental than is currently being envisaged.”
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