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Covid-19 crisis proves that keeping in touch is essential

by Kyle Scott, CAS Policy officer

This article was first published in the Herald on 5 August 2020.

Over the last few weeks my CAS colleagues have used this space to outline our vision for how Scotland can emerge from coronavirus a better, fairer place.

They have set out our ideas for public policy on housing, work, social security and debt. In this final column of the series, I want to focus on one further area: telecommunications.

In the months since lockdown began, many of us have found ourselves in vulnerable circumstances; be that through changes in our income or work situation or just becoming socially isolated. The pandemic has impacted us in ways that we maybe didn’t think were possible, with things that we previously took for granted now being things we treasure. Personally, I have not missed the journey into the office but I have certainly missed the interactions that happened there.

Prior to the pandemic there was a growing understanding that the day-to-day activities of most consumers were increasingly dependent on telecommunications services, whether through mobile, broadband or landline. But I don’t believe these services were seen as essential, in the same way we view other utilities such as water and energy.

Since lockdown however, it has become clear that telecommunications services are integral to our lives and will continue to be so when coronavirus is long gone. From using an internet-enabled device to work from home to begrudgingly joining the family Zoom call, these services have allowed us to keep up-to-date on the latest news, stay connected with loved ones and, for some, work from home.

Many people risk being left behind in all this, though. That includes those who lacked access to the telecommunications market in the first place but also the many who have been unable to access it during the pandemic. While some people may take their access to the internet for granted, it can literally be a lifeline for others, allowing them to manage their Universal Credit journals, for example, or just helping them stay socially connected with other people. 

In addition, while Citizens Advice Bureaux have been physically locked down, they have continued to give advice by telephone and online, and huge numbers of people have accessed it. Indeed, we’ve seen a big spike in demand for advice on issues such as benefits and employment. Sadly, the pandemic has exposed new vulnerabilities and worsened existing ones.

Part of my job at CAS is to oversee the telecommunications market with a view to ensuring that consumer interests are protected and so when lockdown first began, I was keen to see the industry’s response. I wondered whether telecoms providers would understand the difficulties that vulnerable consumers were likely to face in using their services during this crisis. In truth, when the response came it exceeded my expectations. As early as March, the major providers had agreed a set of measures to support vulnerable consumers through lockdown. This included help for those who struggle with their bills, the removal of data caps on broadband services, new low-cost mobile and broadband packages and the provision of alternative methods of communications if priority repairs couldn’t be completed.

This was a really imaginative package of support, which has undoubtedly made a real difference to many peoples’ lives. However, as significant as these measures have been in reducing consumer vulnerability, providers are now beginning to reverse them.

This is unfortunate. Because when I think about the post-coronavirus future – as far away as that may seem –I see many of the same vulnerable consumers with the same kinds of needs. Why then, should these excellent support measures be temporary? With this market being so vital to people’s lives, all consumers should have fair access to it. And if that means some need support to obtain that access, that support should be available to those people on a permanent basis.

Because this is not just about the pandemic. There are many people who experienced digital exclusion before coronavirus and will do so after it. In 2017, 35 per cent of Scottish CAB clients we surveyed told us they struggled to access the telecommunications market due to data costs and 34% had difficulty using digital devices.

Telecommunications, at its best, enables and empowers people. It should be accessible to all, including our more vulnerable citizens. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, published industry guidance just a few weeks ago reminding providers that vulnerable consumers must be treated fairly. We agree. The new support measures introduced during the pandemic crisis should be continued in order to support vulnerable consumers today and also those in the future who are new to the digital world, making it easier for them to enjoy the opportunities it offers.

That would be a positive legacy of lockdown we could all be proud of.