The House of Lords COVID-19 Select Committee are currently carrying out an inquiry on the increased reliance of digital technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the long-term effects of this on wellbeing. The Committee will be hearing oral evidence between November and February, and is accepting written evidence from the wider public until December 11.
The COVID-19 Committee was appointed in June 2020 to consider “the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economic and social wellbeing of the United Kingdom.” One of its first actions was to open a call for submissions from the wider public, many responses to which highlighted the accelerated digitalisation of work, education, healthcare, socialising, and retail. These responses have informed the theme of the Committee’s ongoing inquiry into living online during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly increased the extent to which society is reliant on digital technology. A survey by cloud communications platform provider Twilio has found that COVID-19 accelerated UK companies’ digital communications strategy by an average of 5.3 years, for instance. The aim of the Committee’s inquiry is to examine both the positive and negative impacts of these changes, with a specific focus on the four drivers of wellbeing: physical health, mental health, social interaction and quality of working life.
Given the intensity of digitalisation in the UK across the economy over the past eight to nine months, it’s likely that both the public and policymakers are cautious about accepting these changes wholeheartedly. Media focus on the increased digitalisation of life has focused on issues such as whether working from home makes employees feel isolated and whether education can be effectively delivered online, for instance.
There is a general consensus that some of these trends towards digitalisation are likely to remain long after the pandemic is under control. One stated aim of the Committee’s inquiry is to “explore what steps Government and others can take to maximise the potential positive benefits to wellbeing, and minimise the potential harms that arise from increasing use of digital technology.” Therefore, any insights gleaned from the inquiry have the potential to inform future policy on digital more broadly, and may prompt politicians and policymakers to introduce legislation and other tools to manage the changes being brought about through the digitalisation of work, education, retail, and healthcare.
So far the committee has scheduled two oral evidence sessions. The first, which took place on 10 November 2020, heard evidence on digital exclusion, and focused on topics such as the distribution of broadband services, internet access, digital skills and internet use, and projects and initiatives that improve digital inclusion.
The second session took place on 17 November and focused on digital trends in service delivery, workplaces, and personal lives. The themes it covered include the digitalisation of industries and services, emerging technologies and innovations, and the implications for governance and regulation. Witnesses included Benedict Evans, as well as representatives from Tech Nation, PUBLIC, and the Alan Turing Institute. The session focussed on issues such as regulatory capacity (or lack of), the use of ‘sandboxes’ for regulation, and the trade-offs inherent in policy. As Evans pointed out, privacy is at odds with competition.
The Committee are also seeking written submissions that address questions covering a broad range of topics, including: service provision and access, physical exercise, mental health, loneliness, generational gaps in internet usage, working conditions, digital skills, broadband access, ownership of technology, and regulating digital technology going forwards. Given the breadth of topics to be covered by the inquiry, there is wide scope for corporate engagement in this area to bring political attention to different aspects of digitalisation, and in turn, to inform future policy and legislation on digital issues.
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