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Government should do more to protect well-being in the digital world, says report

A select committee report argues that new health and employment rights are needed to tackle the negative effects of increasing digitisation

New health and employment rights should be introduced to protect well-being due to the increasing reliance on technology after the emergence of Covid-19, according to a select committee report published today.

Published by the UK Parliament’s Covid-19 Committee, the report Beyond digital: Planning for a hybrid world acknowledges that the internet became a “lifeline” over the past year, which has enabled everything from contact with family and friends, to trade, work, study, access to healthcare and political decision-making to continue without the infection risk posed by in-person meetings.

However, the report warned that the ubiquitous nature of the internet in recent times could also lead to a scenario of increasing inequality and marginalisation.

“The future was always going to be hybrid – an increasingly blurred mix of online and offline aspects of life,” said the committee’s chair, Martha Lane Fox. “Due to the pandemic, that future is here now and, as a result, the need for government action is greater than ever to ensure a hybrid future fit for and beneficial to all.”

According to Lane Fox, a new government strategy to tackle these emerging issues needs to be developed and led centrally from the Cabinet Office, with support from the Prime Minister. In addition, Lane Fox noted there must be a recognition that addressing the issues at hand goes beyond what would be considered from a purely digital standpoint and “must be more fundamental than is currently being envisaged”.

“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,” she argued.

On aspects related to work, the report argued that the growing reliance on digital technology “has caused, and will continue to cause, a huge shift in the nature of work, which, in turn, will change the nature of our relationship with our employers”.

“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”
Martha Lane-Fox, Covid-19 Committee chair

The growth of platform working, digital monitoring and “e-presenteeism” poses significant risks for people’s well-being in work, the report argued, adding that it seems evident that employment practice, policy and legislation “have failed to catch up with the hybrid reality of today’s workplace”.

The report called for government intervention to introduce new employment policies and regulations to deal with the current, and future, changes to our working conditions, and the relationship between employee and employer.

Moreover, the current legislative framework should be strengthened to ensure suitability, considering the increasing reliance on digital environments, with new legislation brought in to ensure platform working is covered by enhanced employment rights.

Alongside the strategy called for in the report, the committee recommended consultation on the current legislative framework for employment rights to ensure it is suitable for the digital age, including the consideration of the right to switch off and the responsibilities for meeting the additional costs incurred by home working, as well as the use of workplace monitoring and surveillance, and giving workers a right to access data about their performance.

The report noted that 11% of homes in the UK – the equivalent of 2.8 million households – still do not have internet access. The lack of knowledge required to do things online is another major issue the government needs to tackle, the report noted. Almost half of those in the UK who do not access the internet today have a disability or long-standing health issue, the report said. About nine million people in the UK cannot access the web for themselves and 11.7 million people lack the skills to perform everyday tasks online, it added.

Recommendations towards the creation of the strategy suggested in the committee’s report include a realisation that all aspects of individuals’ lives “are, and will increasingly be, a hybrid blend of online and offline interactions”. Moreover, the report argued that this should be considered a critical issue, just as other topics that impact all government departments.

Tackling the immediate lack of internet access should be a priority for the government, the report noted, which would require the development of a scheme to provide connectivity to those in poverty and on low incomes. This, the report noted, would be introduced alongside a legal right to internet access and digital infrastructure.

A “genuinely hybrid healthcare service” should also be developed as part of the proposed strategy, the report argued, which would give people the right to receive services online or offline and guaranteeing a minimum service standard for healthcare services provided through both channels. This proposed code of practice would also involve a review of patient rights in this hybrid environment, which would consider its impact on accessibility, privacy and the triage between face-to-face and digital provision.

On aspects relating to social interaction, the report argued that while the option of maintaining relationships online during the pandemic has been better than nothing for many people, there are many others, such as disabled individuals or those with caring responsibilities, for whom the ability to take part in online social activities is a benefit they wish to maintain.

“Essential services, such as healthcare, as well as opportunities to socialise with others, will increasingly be provided online. As such, providing individuals with digital rights will become increasingly more important,” the report noted, in relation to the findings of the inquiry relating to the subjects outlined.

The growth in e-commerce is leading to the closure of shops, banks, cafes and pubs – places that allow for incidental social interaction and enable people to feel more connected – which is a major area of concern, the report noted, adding that given the relationship between social connection and well-being, this is a significant threat.

“More support is needed to facilitate local authorities, third sector organisations and businesses coming together with local communities to rethink how public spaces need to adapt to the hybrid world,” the report noted. An inquiry on towns and cities will be carried out to investigate aspects such as the impact of increased digitisation on the high street and local communities.

In addition, the report noted that in the process of developing its hybrid strategy, the government should ensure that it interacts with, and complements, its existing loneliness strategy for England.

“We have heard evidence that the smart use of digital technology can decrease loneliness, but we also acknowledge that the experience of the pandemic shows the importance of face-to-face interaction and that the government’s work to address loneliness is more important than ever,” the report said.

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