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Lords Covid-19 Committee disappointed in government engagement

Committee is so disappointed in the government’s lack of engagement with its inquiry into the digital impact of the pandemic that it has published a separate report criticising it

The House of Lords’ Covid-19 Committee has published a report expressing its disappointment in the government’s answers to its original inquiry on the impact the pandemic has had on digital.

The report said the committee was so baffled by the lack of acknowledgement of its original inquiry that it has taken an “unusual step of publishing a report in which it criticises the recent response received from the government to its Beyond Digital inquiry”.

The original inquiry looked at the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has impacted online service, e-commerce and automation, and the impact that will have on society, setting out several recommendations for the government.

The inquiry, entitled Beyond digital: Planning for a hybrid world, acknowledged that the internet has become a “lifeline” over the past year, enabling 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.

But 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 committee said the response from the government to the inquiry was unsatisfactory and “failed to acknowledge one-third of the committee’s 24 recommendations, including on significant issues such as ensuring that employment rights are fit for the digital age and the need to mitigate the long-term impact on pupils of the last 16 months of disrupted schooling”.

The report said: “The committee has called on the government to provide a more substantive response to their report, and also raised broader concerns that a lack of engagement by governments with committee reports hampers the ability of Parliament to hold the government to account and to properly investigate public policy.”

The committee’s original inquiry, published in April 2021, set out how the pandemic had accelerated the use of digital technologies, and the implications this has on society. 

The recommendations for government set out in the inquiry included ensuring that plans to develop and test digital health innovations are as robust as those used for physical health interventions, and that the school curriculum for pupils reflects the increasing need for digital skills, ensuring young people are equipped for a “hybrid world”. These, along with several other recommendations, received no response from the government, which the committee said made it “extremely disappointed”. 

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“While governments may decide not to support recommendations made by committees of the House, they should at least give them due consideration and respond accordingly,” the report added. 

In its response, the government did say that it welcomed the report, and that it is important to assess the long-term implications of the pandemic and how digital technology can have a “long-term impact on our wellbeing and mental health”.

It also highlighted the 10 technology priorities set out by digital minister Oliver Dowden, and how their vision will help get the country’s digital foundations right, as well as considering “how to minimise inequality and build a more inclusive, competitive and innovative digital economy for the future”.

Another recommendation by the committee was to ensure the government commits to improving digital literacy as a central part of its hybrid strategy and delivers a comprehensive skills programme.

The government said in its response: “We are committed to making essential digital skills provision more accessible and flexible by building on the innovation in online learning implemented during the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that adults can gain essential digital skills at a time and place that suits them.

“We will reform and update the digital entitlement accordingly to ensure it is meeting the needs of learners and supports the government’s ongoing commitment to improving essential digital skills.”

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