The government aims for 100 per cent full-fibre broadband coverage by 2033. At present, only 8 per cent of households are covered. Photo: © Marcus Harrison-business/Alamy Stock Photo

The digital crossroads provides an opportunity to rethink how millions of people work—and live

Only by improving infrastructure and delivering more training will we help millions adjust to the new digital age
August 31, 2020

Like many of us, my days now revolve around my laptop. We’re spending more and more time online. Our social lives have become Zoom drinks with friends, virtual trips to the theatre and oh so many quizzes. 

The transition to a digital economy has only been accelerated by Covid-19, as huge numbers of people work from home. For some, the pandemic was the catalyst they needed to finally find out how their iPad really worked. Millions were forced by necessity to learn how to videoconference, or find an excuse to call that relative or friend who might know how to edit a PDF.

Many are learning on the job, but it need not be this way. To deliver a better digital future, Labour knows how vital skills training is—the days of learning IT at school and then leaving it behind at the school gates are over. It is more important than ever that opportunities for lifelong learning are available to all, both in and out of employment. Britain must rise to a once-in-a-generation challenge.

Firstly, the government needs to do more to incentivise investment in workplace training. The 2019 Open University Business Barometer showed that 68 per cent of businesses struggled to find people with the correct skillset to fill vacancies, with 34 per cent of businesses raising a problematic lack of digital and ICT skills as their primary (and growing) concern. The Learning and Work Institute points to a decade of decline in UK workplace training, with investment in employees down £5.1bn in real terms over the period, meaning we are falling further behind most other developed nations. 

Equally, the state cannot shrink from its role: providing greater assistance to those both in and out of work to access the additional help they need, filling the gaps in the support network. Too often, we have become reliant on the patchwork respite of charities and councils to ameliorate a nationwide problem after a decade of underfunding. For many, being stuck at home without the skills to get online leaves them feeling more excluded.

Next, we must complement a holistic, cradle-to-grave skills strategy with a vision to improve UK IT infrastructure. We need to be ambitious and targets need to be met. A recent Ofcom report showed that just 8 per cent of UK households had full-fibre broadband. Despite the government’s stated aim of 100 per cent coverage in the coming years, we are lagging behind other countries, putting UK businesses at a disadvantage.

Lastly, we must recognise that we are at a fork in the road. Do we take the path of incentivising people to work in greater numbers from home, in order to reap the work-life benefits? Or do we allow millions to return to the daily commute, back into buildings they do not necessarily need to be in, even if that is worse for their wellbeing and for the environment? Are we ready for the recalibration of our high streets, our city centres and our housing market? Are we paying enough attention to the life and struggles of the millions who do not have the luxury of working from home? These are the fundamental questions Covid-19 is posing, and rather than a battle, I fear it is more like entering a maze.

As great thinkers of the last century knew, when a dilemma is so all-encompassing, affecting every facet of both public and private life, the state must respond by offering a better social contract. Whether it was the creation of the NHS, homes fit for heroes or the post-war promise of employment for all, a bold offer was needed to communicate—and create public confidence in—the strategic direction of policy. The challenge facing us in parliament is to not fall back into “jam tomorrow” politics, but to turn this crisis into an opportunity to rethink how millions of people perform their jobs.

It might feel daunting, but “business as usual” did not work for too many people—and we cannot go back to it.