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Urgent and radical action is needed to increase digital inclusion in Wales

The Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, Heléna Herklots, writes about the significant impact of digital exclusion on older people and calls for action on removing the barriers to digital access

For many of us, being online has been invaluable during the pandemic, allowing us to remain connected with family and friends, access information and guidance, and use a wide range of services, from things like health appointments to online shopping and entertainment.

But for the older people throughout Wales who are digitally excluded, doing these things – things we often take for granted – has simply not been possible. For many, the anxiety and isolation experienced in recent months has been compounded significantly by not being online.

Whilst this may be a choice for some, we know that a number of barriers can prevent older people from getting connected, including a lack of digital skills or a lack of confidence using digital technology; financial barriers, such as the cost of broadband and devices; and a lack of access to places that offer free internet access, such as libraries, something that has not been possible at all during lockdown. We also know that a lack of digital infrastructure can also be a barrier to older people getting online, which can be a particular issue in rural areas.

This impact of digital exclusion upon older people is something I examined as part of my ‘Leave No-One Behind’ report, which I published in August. The report is based on evidence captured through extensive engagement with older people, who have shared their experiences with the me throughout the pandemic, as well as information and evidence gathered through ongoing engagement with bodies and organisations working with and for older people.

The report calls for a range of action – immediately and in the longer term – to tackle the issues and challenges they have faced in recent months, protect their rights and ensure that action is taken to address wider issues relating to services and support for older people, many of which have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

I have therefore called for community level ‘audits’ to be undertaken immediately throughout Wales to identify potentially vulnerable older people who have been digitally excluded during the pandemic and provide them with tailored support to get them online, including making user-friendly devices with access to the internet available where required.

We must remove the barriers that prevent older people from getting online and it is crucial that we see a change in the way that the importance of digital connectivity is viewed and understood: digital access must be seen as a right and as an essential utility in the same way we consider the need for gas and electricity.

That’s why I’m calling for a right to digital connectivity to be established in Wales, which views digital infrastructure as an essential service that the whole population needs affordable access to. Alongside this, I want to see the introduction of a social tariff for internet access and for Wales to work towards the provision of free universal access to the internet.

I also want to see health boards and local authorities establishing outreach programmes to support older people and build digital confidence to access digital public services, building upon successful work already being delivered by Digital Communities Wales.

This period has shown that urgent and radical action is needed to increase digital inclusion in Wales and as Commissioner I will continue to work with Digital Communities Wales and a wide range of other partners to ensure that older people throughout Wales get the support they need to get connected.

Heléna Herklots CBE

Older People’s Commissioner for Wales

The Older People’s Commissioner’s Office is a member of the Digital Inclusion Alliance Wales,