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Beyond Digital (COVID-19 Committee Report)

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Grand Committee takes note of the Report from the COVID-19 Committee Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World (1st Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 263).

My Lords, I speak today at what I think might be my least last-minute event ever. We completed the work of this committee nearly two years ago and, after a year of hospitalisation, it is entirely on me why we have had to move the debate so far into the future. I thank the clerks for their heroic attempts in working to find time when I was able to be detached from a drip to come here to speak today. I also thank my colleagues for their patience; the incredible effort and work that they put into our committee should be aired and given the proper debate and time. I thank everybody for bearing with me.

I am reminded of how, in 1972, the Chinese Premier was asked about the effects of the French Revolution. At that time, he said:

“It is too early to tell”.

That famous quote sat in my mind while I was chairing this committee, because we were set up in June or July 2020 when, as it now transpires, it was far too early to tell the long-term implications of Covid. Although I hate to start on a downbeat note, on reflection perhaps the biggest learning of this committee is that when considering long-term implications we have to think very carefully about when structurally to put work in place, when to set up committees and when to make sure that we have the right perspective and timeframe with which to reflect back.

Who could have imagined, as we sat in our first committee meetings on Zoom getting to know each other and trying to work out what we all thought, that the tsunami of the Ukrainian invasion, a cost of living crisis and an energy crisis would be upon us as they have been over the past year? None of us thought that there would be anything other than the fallout from Covid, which we were trying to analyse, as the main factor for policy-making over the next year. As it turns out—I will return to this—it is scary to think how little we returned to some of the themes and implications of Covid over that period, given how they are still profoundly in existence in our society. I will show how some of what we talked about in our report has come to be.

First, we decided to open up the work and gather evidence in a new way—with, to be frank, slightly mixed reactions from some of my colleagues—by asking people outside this building what they thought the long-term implications would be. We had many small focus groups and many declarations of evidence—thousands, in fact. We married them with some of the work from POST, the incredible team that sits here in Parliament.

One thing that I hope will be a lasting legacy of this work is that we now have that bank of data that Select Committees can use as evidence. If all else is ignored, I hope that Select Committees in the future will look back on this rich source of information, gathered, as I say, in a very new way. We asked people to send us anything: a drawing, a poem, a line, a tweet or more substantial evidence and data that they might feel was in our purview.

We did three sets of work. We looked beyond hybrid at the impact of technology, or the absence of it, at that time. We looked at the high street, and we looked at parents and families. This debate is focused mostly on that first piece of work, but it would have been a missed opportunity not to continually frame everything we did by thinking about the resilience of the UK and how its structures, both within and beyond this building, worked to ensure that, when we are faced with such moments in the future, as we inevitably will be, we are able to offer citizens the best services and the best opportunities to work and live as they deserve.

A lot of the recommendations in the final report on the resilience of the UK and living beyond Covid came down to quite structural and detailed things—about how Select Committees might work, how government departments should join up and how plans should be built. I will not dwell on them now, as I fear the Minister may not necessarily have prepared for all of them, but this was a constant theme in how we approached the work and how important we still think it is that government sees the planes that now run across all the work that it does. That requires a significant shift in how it thinks about how it organises itself.

For the majority of my comments I will turn to the hybrid world of work. It seems extraordinary now that this building managed to get itself online and doing all the business of government within a month. I salute the teams here that did that; I know that the Parliamentary Digital Service showed extreme levels of dedication to make that happen. As someone who came into the House of Lords and was frequently asked, pretty much from the get-go, how to make the wifi work, I understood in extreme detail how incredibly big these challenges were. It felt as though Covid really pushed through the institutional inertia here and across the entire corporate world and our society; where people had before not quite seen the benefits to using technology or had perhaps not imagined the possibilities, suddenly we were in the thick of a brave new world.

That was very beneficial for some and not for others. I often reflect on how many people probably wished that they could stay at home in their pyjamas but in fact donned their PPE gear and were made to go out on to the front line. One piece of evidence our committee heard was that half the British workforce could not work digitally. We truly were a hybrid country. In our race towards technology and the acceleration that we saw, it is very important not to forget all the other people who were working to save us at that moment and who continue to do so in the absence of that opportunity.

Within the digital landscape, we looked at a group of different areas: the way the digital divide dominated the discussion during Covid; how skills could be built and data could be used; how collaboration should be increased and research should be more deeply connected to policy-making; and how the resilience of the infrastructure of the internet stood up during that time. We made some recommendations across each of those areas. I will not go through each one, but there are three on which, even 18 months later, I feel we still have a great deal of work to do.

First is the inequality of digital technology. This is not just about the binary nature of the digital divide; the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee released an excellent report at the end of last year, which we do not need to relitigate, on the digital divide. This is more than that. It is about our capacity to trade in businesses and to make sure that Ministers have the digital understanding they need to make policy, and that hospitals understand the opportunities available to them with technology.

As a country, we sometimes stand a bit shy of really facing into the future. We do it by halves. Many of the people we heard from and talked to in the committee gave the impression that they had made a big investment to help get online in order to function through Covid but that there were still significant challenges. The sharp end of that is those who had no access to technology at all. As noble Lords may have read in our report, at that time only 50% of families earning £10,000 a year or less had any access to technology at all. We heard that more than 2 million children—often two, three or four in a family—were sharing one device to do schoolwork. We also heard of people having to decide between data and feeding their families in what is still one of the richest countries in the world.

That was shocking at a time when everything had to move to the virtual world, but it is just as shocking now, 18 months later, when we are back living firmly in that hybrid world. I would like to know from the Government what specific plans they have and what answers they have to the recommendations that we made about how people could have different benefits wrapped up for the costs of broadband access and so on, which have escalated because of the cost of living crisis over the past year.

The digital divide is a fundamental building block that we have so much opportunity to right in this country. Again and again, we saw its terrible downside when we were doing the committee’s work, but we also saw the upsides for people who had managed to embrace it—growing their businesses, running their charities and offering help online to people they may not have been able to reach before. There is a huge upside if we continue to focus on this with relentless urgency.

Another aspect that we came back to again and again concerned the skills of people working in the public sector and the government estate. We heard about schools where parents felt that teachers had less of a clue about how to use technology than they did, and about schools that did not have access. We also heard of hospitals that were doing pretty whizzy and exciting things and remote appointments, and doctors’ surgeries that had cracked a lot of the problems, but we also heard of doctors that were absolutely unable to commit to this new way of seeing and working with patients.

We made a number of recommendations. I know there have been endless Civil Service skills commitments by the Government, but I would love to understand how they now see skills across the public sector in relation to digital. There is no ability to stop: this needs to be constant and embedded in all workforce learning. We made a number of recommendations about career development and how important it is that all these themes are put into the mix for people working across the public sector.

We have the profound issue of the digital divide, which is not just about people being with or without but about people who may have some but not all—different parts of our society may be better equipped than others—and we have the issue of how the public sector delivers digital. As someone who was instrumental in creating the Government Digital Service, I see the zig-zagging, which is probably inevitable. But we made a number of recommendations about the public services that we use and how much more improvement there could still be so that everyone is working to provide a really hybrid service—not always purely digital but whatever is appropriate—and making sure that we are listening to the patient, the benefits claimant or whoever might be on the other side of the desk.

Another important piece is about how we can use data to make sure that we really understand what happened during that Covid period and who was affected. We heard from many different groups who felt they were not really being seen in policy-making. The black community has been endlessly highlighted for the issues that it faced in the medical system during Covid. Health inequalities driven by bad use—and bad joined-up use—of data were addressed again and again to us in the committee. We made a number of recommendations about how to make sure that data and policy-making are linked together in a more effective way and that there is far less siloed decision-making in government and far more central planning and an acceptance that now, in this new hybrid world, we are living not in one or the other but across both and we need to make decisions across both.

My final point is about overall resilience. A couple of our evidence-givers told us that it was amazing how many things stood up and survived during Covid—I started my remarks talking about the incredible resilience of this organisation to get itself functioning again. But we felt that there was a huge opportunity to make sure that we were stress testing our digital infrastructure in particular, and our other critical national infrastructure, to make sure that, should this happen again, or when it happens again in a different form, we are able to say with absolute purpose that we have tested it regularly and that we are constantly thinking about how the hybrid world has affected our critical national infrastructure, and not seeing it as one or the other.

Since the work was completed and we have come out of the dregs, if you like, of Covid, there have been so many more noisy headlines. I was reflecting on how AI is clearly now the dominant media story. You cannot open a paper, turn on the radio or watch a news programme without there being some element of the world being either about to be saved or about to be taken over and destroyed by robots. I really hope this does not mean that we forget some of the structural things that happened during the pandemic. We may be looking at a very different set of geopolitical circumstances to the ones that we faced during Covid, but we still have a huge number of issues that have surfaced because of this hybrid world.

I am very grateful. I apologise for intervening. I put my name down but am not able to speak, because I cannot stay until the end. I pay tribute to the work that the noble Baroness did as chair of our committee in the most difficult circumstances for her personally. It is a very difficult group to chair, in some ways, but she did it with extraordinary sensitivity and ability. I would also like to stress, and I am sure she will agree, that the inequalities we saw were huge. Children on the 10th floor with a single mother did not have separate bedrooms, let alone separate laptops. That is just the tip of the iceberg of those inequalities. I thank the noble Baroness.

I thank the noble Lord. I agree 100% and, if he had just allowed me 10 more seconds, that is where I was going to end. I hope that the noise now around the other issues that we face, both geopolitically and locally, and the enthusiasm with which the Government have embraced the dominance that we are going to create in AI and how we are going to become a global superpower, do not mean that we forget the very deep structural inequalities that were created because of Covid. We saw that in this hybrid world work, we saw it in our parents and families work and we saw it in our high street work. I beg to move.

My Lords, the Covid committee was the first committee that I sat on after entering your Lordships’ House. I have to note that I joined after this particular report was published, but I was involved with all the other reports that our wonderful chairman, the noble Baroness, has just referred to.

I commend this report to the Committee. It marks a very first step for me in learning lessons from the pandemic. I went on to serve on the Adult Social Care Committee and am now on the Communications and Digital Committee. Our report on digital exclusion, published in June, builds hugely on the work of this report. Many of its recommendations are echoed in the digital exclusion report. I want particularly to highlight the notable and distinct lack of overall responsibility for digital policies in government. Digital is an issue that cuts across the remit of all government departments. Being digitally literate and engaged is an expected skill and, as both reports make clear, digital skills are as important to everyday life as learning to read or count.

However, this report is not just about digital. Its title is Beyond Digital: it is about the world we all live in now, a hybrid world. As the report sets out, the future was always going to be a hybrid one; the pandemic just meant that the future is here now.

As the noble Baroness said and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, just mentioned, the committee exposed the huge inequalities in how people experienced life during Covid. People who had no gardens were severely restricted in their access to open spaces. People who could not afford computers or an internet connection were cut off from work, school, services and society. People, such as the disabled and the elderly, who relied on others to help them exist every day had vital services withdrawn with no notice or consultation and were basically left to get on with it. None of these inequalities is new, but they were multiplied enormously by the pandemic.

What is interesting to me is to ask: what has happened in the years since? My experience comes from the world of health and from Scotland. I need to declare various interests here: I run Cerebral Palsy Scotland and I chair the Scottish Government’s National Advisory Committee for Neurological Conditions. The Covid public inquiries are under way in Scotland and in the UK, and I am giving endless evidence to the Scottish committee at the moment. I hope that both inquiries are able to learn lessons and do not just seek to apportion blame, because I do not think that would be helpful to anybody. I particularly want to learn the lessons of what we do not want ever to happen again.

It was concerning to see the arbitrary identification of what services were deemed essential and what services were dropped. For example, carers going into people’s homes were classed as key workers, whereas support health service workers—AHPs—became online only. Disabled people were being told in all the national communications that they were more vulnerable to Covid and yet what happened was that the services that they rely on to keep them well and active were being cut. I can tell your Lordships that you can achieve only so much through an online physiotherapy appointment. However, people with long-term conditions such as cerebral palsy rely on allied health professionals such as physiotherapists to enable them to keep well and to be able to function, yet somehow these services were seen as less important and were withdrawn— I make the point again—without any consultation with the people who relied on them.

As a result of my lived experience—to coin a phrase that the Government seem to like—I know of various developments since the publication of this report. In my organisation, we have developed a “virtual first” way of triaging people who come to us to use our services. The Scottish Government have published guidance on virtual versus face-to-face acute neurology consulting and they are preparing work for neuro- psychology in this area. We have to acknowledge that for some people this is an efficient, effective and easy way to use services—I point to people who live on the Scottish islands, those who need to take time off work to attend appointments or people who have caring responsibilities. However, we have to be clear what “virtual” means. For example, an acute neurologist in Aberdeen can absolutely have a detailed virtual appointment with somebody living in Orkney but only because they might have local health professionals on site to assist with that virtual appointment. When in-person is essential—for example, making a diagnosis of such conditions or if people do not understand the terminology of what is being discussed—it is important that that is prioritised.

My experience suggests that the NHS is indeed moving in this direction and developing effective hybrid service provision, but I want to see much more movement in the digital space on data. Where is the data, how do we use data to support people moving from different services, who holds the health data and how is it safely accessed and shared? Such developments must incorporate health and social care. Although we may be seeing progress with the development of data platforms within the NHS, social care has a long way to go before the data that it needs and the data that it holds are accessed and shared with others to enable people who we, during the pandemic, labelled as vulnerable to be supported to live and thrive.

The report also touches on education in schools. We already know that many pre-existing problems were faced by children with exceptional needs. They are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have had access to new technologies, both of which have been linked to less intensive home learning during the pandemic. The report highlights how children’s social development was compromised by the closure of schools—again, I hope that we never do that again without serious consideration. Schools are so much more than places just for academic learning. I witnessed the impact on families who were struggling with children with cerebral palsy and trying to juggle the needs of their disabled child, without support and without the respite usually provided by schools, with the needs of siblings, perhaps trying to hold down a job while working from home, all at the same time—a frankly impossible task.

Granted, evidence from Scope to our committee outlines the advantages of online learning for some disabled children who are able to learn at their own pace. However, other evidence, such as that from the Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families, emphasised that it is more difficult for children without traditional literacy or verbal communication skills to sustain interaction on-screen. While we learn from the pros and cons of online learning, it is my hope that we never again leave families with disabled children to cope on their own at home without access to local, in-person support.

In the report, Scope—I come back to Scope—highlighted some of the advantages of increasing reliance on digital technology in supporting some disabled people to work from home, facilitating more flexible working patterns and reducing the issues and stresses associated with commuting, for example, all of which I support. However, in my various working environments, from Parliament to my professional interests, as laid out in the register, there is too often an either/or approach to in-person or remote working. Insisting on just going back to a pre-pandemic way of working per se flies in the face of what is happening, whether that is in the retail sector, or about the impact of travel on the climate or on the ability to attract a wider pool of talent—or, frankly, on economic efficiency measures. Is hybrid working the best of both worlds or is it a tentative middle ground in which we find ourselves at this moment? I do not believe that we know where the world of work will land. This report recommends that the Government ensure that employment legislation is fit for the digital age. For me, this is still an evolving space and employers need to be supported to implement the flexibility required for their individual business needs.

In conclusion, if this report was a useful first step in looking at the impact of the pandemic, the intervening years since the first lockdown have seen some concerning trends that suggest that we have not done enough to make things better. Enabling people to flourish in a hybrid world means tackling digital exclusion and supporting digital skills. I look forward to future debates on our report from the Communications and Digital Committee. It also requires us to tackle the systemic inequalities exposed by the pandemic. We have to understand what we mean by essential in-person services. We need to work with disabled people and the organisations that represent them to understand the impact of online versus face-to-face services on their lives and we need to reimagine how we deliver social care. I also look forward to debating the report from the Adult Social Care Committee in due course.

The pandemic reminded us what really matters in our lives: personal freedom, celebrating with our loved ones, caring for friends and family, a stable economy, a vibrant NHS and happy, healthy, well-educated children. Let us not forget that as we move into our hybrid world.

My Lords, I just want to notify the Committee that I am not able to speak because I cannot stay until the end. I should have been taken off the speakers’ list, as I was told had happened.

My Lords, the Covid-19 pandemic was the worst global crisis since the Second World War, an event that changed the world for ever. It came from nowhere. How many people predicted that it would happen? How many people predict these black-swan events that change the world? How many people predicted 9/11? How many people predicted the financial crisis 15 years ago? I have learned from my own experience over the last three decades of building my business, Cobra Beer, from scratch—a business that I nearly lost three times—that crises almost always come out of the blue. No one predicts them. What matters is how you deal with these crises, how you survive, how you get through and how you learn from the crises and from the mistakes that have been made.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and her committee for their report, Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World. I emphasise a point she made: it was published more than two years ago, on 21 April 2021, but better late than never that we are debating this really important issue.

In her opening remarks, the noble Baroness highlighted how the committee looked at issues concerning hybrid, the high street, parents and children, as well as the resilience of the UK. The report clearly says that

“dependence on the internet as a result of the pandemic has led to a massive acceleration in many pre-existing digital trends: from online shopping to online GP appointments, automation of jobs to remote working”.

From my experience, I remember that many of the financial transactions I have been involved in—the deals, mergers and acquisitions in my business over the years—used to be conducted face to face, with the lawyers and everyone gathering around a table in a boardroom. Then we moved on to conference calls more than face-to-face meetings. The technology for videoconferencing was there; we just were not using it. The pandemic led to this technology being used, which I will come to later.

The report also clearly highlights the “huge inequalities” that exist in our country, which have been spoken about; how children lost so much of their schooling; how businesses could not move to trade online because they just did not know how to do it; and the isolation created by the pandemic. The future was always going to be hybrid—a mixture of online, offline and real-time—but due to the pandemic, as the report says, the future “is here now”.

I am happy to note that the report states that digital is

“a very poor substitute for ‘in person’ services and interactions”.

There is no beating that. You can never replicate what we are doing here: having this debate face to face. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, I commend the House of Lords for adapting so quickly and enabling us to continue to function as a Parliament even during the lockdown and to operate remotely. We did it, in many cases from abroad. We functioned, but nothing beats what we are doing now.

The report also mentions and recommends that, like many other cross-cutting issues, such as Brexit and devolution, responsibility for the Government’s strategic response should lie with the Cabinet Office. I presume that is where it sits now. It also quotes Yuval Noah Harari as saying that, pre-internet,

“if you ordered the entire population of a country to stay at home for several weeks, it would have resulted in economic ruin, social breakdown and mass starvation”.

The internet made it possible for us to stay at and work from home, and kept us safe.

In July, I was privileged to be the guest of honour of one of my old schools in India, the Hyderabad Public School, for its centenary investiture ceremony. The school has many illustrious alumni, including Ajay Banga, the president of the World Bank, and Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft. I have quoted many times what he said at the beginning of the pandemic, which the report also quotes:

“We’ve … seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”.

That is where necessity becomes the mother of invention. We did it. Research by the Royal College of General Practitioners found that

“at the peak of the pandemic, around 71% of GP consultations were conducted remotely by telephone or video”,

compared with 25% for the same period the year before. A hybrid world is very beneficial. We are now living in that world, where we make the most of in-person interactions and the virtual interactions that the technology allows us, which we demonstrated throughout the pandemic.

The problem is that we can have a truly good hybrid world only if it is truly inclusive and everyone has access and is able to use the technology and the internet. The reality is that at the end of 2019, before the pandemic, there were more than 600,000 premises that were unable to receive decent broadband. Of course, many of those were in rural areas. I ask the Government to confirm whether they have a target of 100% broadband coverage throughout the United Kingdom, and by when they hope to fulfil that.

Then there is the aspect that a huge proportion of the population are digitally illiterate. Up to 9 million people—some say more than 11 million people—do not have the ability to use this technology in the way that many of us, fortunately, can. Some 9% of households with children have access to the internet only through a smartphone. The Sutton Trust found that 15% of teachers in the most deprived schools said that more than one-third of their students did not have adequate access to an electronic device for home learning, compared with 2% of teachers in the most affluent schools. In the United States of America students and teachers in all government schools are able to have computers or laptops. Will the Government confirm how many of our students and teachers have that 100% access to computers and digital devices?

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned that many children missed out on their schooling because of the pandemic. I know, from personal experience, that children lucky enough to have access to broadband, their laptop, a room and teaching taking place—forget missing lessons, they did not miss even an art lesson or a music lesson. Yet at the other extreme, we had children on a council estate, in a tower block, who had no laptop, no broadband and no room in which to have access. They missed, many of them, a year of education.

Another area where the Government could have done more is that they were too late in implementing lateral flow testing. As president of the CBI from June 2020 until June 2022, I was one of the first people in the country, in August 2020, to recommend to the Government to implement lateral flow mass testing. The Government would not listen. As an entrepreneur, you never give up; I persisted and eventually the Government did listen. They listened in November 2020, and it was the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who said, on the Floor of the House, “Lord Bilimoria, you have won this argument”, and they started to implement lateral flow testing. By the time it was fully implemented, it was November 2021, running into December 2021 and January 2022. Noble Lords will remember that we ran out of lateral flow tests because they were being offered, as I recommended, free to the public and to businesses.

How many people—not many—have heard of the Oxford University test that was done in 200 schools with 200,000 children and 20,000 staff? Half used a bubble system, isolating, so that when one person got Covid, the whole bubble would isolate and miss their schooling; the other half used regular lateral flow testing. They found that the ones in the bubble missed out on schooling while the ones with regular lateral flow testing, except for the individual who tested positive, did not miss out at all. We could have saved so many more school days if we had implemented lateral flow testing earlier. I go further and say that if we had implemented lateral flow testing earlier, we would have avoided the second and third lockdowns and would have saved hundreds of billions of pounds, let alone lives wasted and school days wasted. I hope that is one of the lessons that is learned.

To conclude, we have a digital divide that has been highlighted by the pandemic, digital poverty, digital access, digital illiteracy. I make the point that, going back, my first government appointment was in 1999 as a member of the New Deal task force, which then became the national employment panel in the Department for Work and Pensions. I remember there that the whole idea of getting people from welfare to work was not just to save money and help the economy but to help those individuals, because experiment after experiment, research after research, showed that work is actually good for you. It is good physically and good mentally.

When you are in a face-to-face working environment, you have the ability to be more creative, to be more innovative, to have that buzz and to have the social interactions. There is also the ability for your local high streets to survive. I am sorry to say that the high streets have suffered hugely because of the pandemic. They need support, and one area would be a reform of our business rates. Will the Government acknowledge that we desperately need to reform our business rates to save our high streets?

I conclude by saying that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. We need to learn from our mistakes.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, with the wealth of experience that he brings to your Lordships’ House. It is also a pleasure to take part in this debate and, in doing so, I declare my financial services and digital interests as adviser to Ecospend and Boston Ltd, respectively.

Along with other noble Lords, I congratulate fulsomely the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox of Soho, on the way that she introduced this debate and indeed the way that she chaired this committee at an unprecedented time. Almost every recommendation in the report rings true and, although we have waited two years for this debate, they are as relevant, fresh and important today as when they were inked just over two years ago.

I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on everything that she has done in terms of digital inclusion, not least Doteveryone. In many ways, “doteverything” is what I would like to cover in my comments this afternoon. When it comes to digital and “doteverything”, it if does not include “doteveryone”, what is the point? Why are we doing it? As other noble Lords have commented, it is about how we thread so optimally those golden threads of inclusion and innovation—the golden threads that enable talent and technology to thrive. That is what this report really brings to bear. This should be the golden thread that runs through all our post-Covid build-back. If we do not do it in an inclusive manner, it is not really worth doing at all. Perhaps the greatest and saddest learning from the pandemic was that, although we were all in it, we certainly were not all in it together. We need to ensure that what we do going forward is very much altogether—altogether different, altogether better and altogether inclusive.

To bring this to light, I will focus on the three areas of financial inclusion, digital inclusion and new technologies for public good. In terms of financial inclusion, we had issues before the pandemic, but there are two examples where the pandemic exacerbated financial exclusion. First, we suddenly saw a rollout of card payment machines that had no keypads; they were flatscreen, thus completely inaccessible to me and millions of other people. It was another example of a phenomenon that has gone on for decades where health and safety—or something presenting itself as health and safety—was used to trump and wash away inclusion. I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister: in terms of everything that we do, products that are produced and everything that the Government have responsibility for, will it all be rolled out in an inclusive manner? Indeed, companies that bring out products or services that are inaccessible and not inclusive should rightly feel the full force of equalities law upon them as a consequence.

Similarly, there is the hybrid nature of not just work and education but life. At the height of the pandemic, we saw cash withdrawals decline by more than 80% in London and yet by less than 40% in other parts of the country. This demonstrates that cash still matters, materially, to millions. Will the Government consider designating the UK cash network as critical national infrastructure in terms of both resilience and ensuring financial inclusion?

So many of the recommendations in the report thread together what are often wrongly described as the “hard” and “soft” elements of digital inclusion. I prefer to call them the “material” and “human” elements. To echo my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, when will every single household, business and part of the United Kingdom have effective, reliable broadband connectivity? Without it, more than ever, it is now a case of not just being unable to get online but being socially and economically excluded.

I will bring this to life with the example of a payment app. If someone holds in their hand the best payment app ever developed, they may have great connectivity but without that social connection or the digital skills—the human part of it—they will not be able to make a payment. With the selfsame app in the hands of someone with those digital skills but without connectivity, that payment will also not be made. Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Government are looking at the material and human elements and mapping this across the country to understand how we can enable true connectivity that combines both critical elements?

We saw examples of farmers being forced to go to McDonald’s to do their VAT returns. The Government have often said that, if there are difficulties with connectivity, you can go to your high street or library, but does my noble friend think it acceptable for farmers and other businesses to have to do something as personal as their tax declarations and returns and VAT returns in a public space such as McDonald’s or even a public library?

I move to technology for public good. It is interesting how, even in the midst of such a horrific situation as the pandemic, opportunities came through, particularly for disabled people. I was asked in 2018 to do a review for the Government on opening up public appointments for disabled people to the boards of public organisations responsible for well over £200 billion of our money. We have shameful representation of disabled people on those boards. One of the recommendations I made was that, at application, interview and onboarding, different and, at the time, novel approaches such as video interviews should be considered. This was seen as radical. Now, thankfully and positively, it has very much become the norm.

This demonstrates the opportunity we have for technology not to divide but to bring together and connect for positive good. I wrote a report in 2017 on distributed ledger technology for public good. Would it not be such a positive post-pandemic build-back for the Government fully to engage with the opportunities of distributed ledger technology? For example, currently the NHS spends 25,000 doctor days on ensuring the credentials of our medics. This is critical—you want to know that the person you are consulting or who is operating on you has the training, skills, qualifications and credentials they say they have—but with a relatively straightforward DLT solution those 25,000 doctor days could be converted into 25,000 doctor days of care. That would be a small but incredibly impactful and positive element to come out of post-pandemic planning. Are the Government looking at all the use cases for distributed ledger technology for public good?

On AI, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, rightly identified, it is all around us right now—it is everything everywhere, all the time—and we need to ensure that that is part of the positive build-back story. I was fortunate enough to attend the Turing summit earlier this year, where the institute had all its top researchers—its post-docs—doing 90-second presentations to pitch for funding for their particular idea. All the ideas were innovative and all had a social purpose—a people purpose. The winner was looking at how to scan early for ovarian cancer. What brilliant work is happening with our researchers at our universities up and down the country. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on whether the Government are gaining all the right connections from the academic powerhouse that we have, not just in this city but right across the country?

To conclude, the Covid pandemic was a once-in-a-100-year event, but we are currently in the midst of another pernicious and avoidable epidemic that is summarised best as: we have never been more connected, and yet, in that state, we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on what the Government are doing to use both technology and human interaction to ensure that we move from this, for our young people and all our people? Ultimately, although video conferencing was successful during the pandemic, and it has a purpose, there is nothing better than the essential quality of the human relationship. Everything must be seen as relational, not transactional, and if we can weave so optimally those golden threads of inclusion and innovation, I believe that we can drive economic, social and psychological good. We can do it, we must do it, and I believe that we owe it not least to all those who tragically did not make it through.

My Lords, it was a privilege to participate as a member of the Covid-19 Committee of your Lordships’ House under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. I want to thank her, as I thank the clerks and advisers to the committee, and indeed all the witnesses, who sent in witness statements or appeared in front of the committee. A huge amount of work was undertaken. This is one of the reports that was produced—there are others—so I want to stick to the subject of this report and not speak to the others. I hope we will get a chance to address them subsequently.

I declare my interest as the executive chairman of the Changing Character of War Centre at Pembroke College, Oxford, because specific issues arise later in what I have to say.

Things moved very quickly, right from the very beginning. It has been said that in your Lordships’ House we moved very quickly. The very first evidence that I had of that was at the end of the debate, which noble Lords may recall, on the massive Bill that we put through the House very quickly. I had spoken on the Bill, and I went to the clerks afterwards and said, “How quickly will we be able to get Her Majesty’s approval?”—she was still with us at that time. “Oh”, he said, “in less than half an hour”. I said, “Oh my goodness. How are you going to get it out to Windsor and back?” because we all knew that that was where she was. “Ah”, they said. “Her Majesty has agreed to do it digitally”. How many years of negotiations that might have taken but for Covid and the creativity and imagination of Her Majesty?

Things changed, and they did so dramatically and quickly. However, the job of the committee was not to look at what was changing specifically at that time, nor was it to look at the problems and challenges of dealing with Covid at that time. Other committees were looking at that. Our job was to look at the future as best we could and to try to say, “What will things be like perhaps in two to five years’ time?” The noble Baroness, our chair, kept saying this to the witnesses as they came, but it was extremely difficult to find witnesses who would speak to the future. People were so preoccupied with the problems of dealing with Covid in the here and now that it was very difficult for them to look to the future. That was a constant struggle that we had.

There is no question that prediction is very difficult, particularly when it is about the future. That is what Niels Bohr said. Your Lordships will remember that he was a Nobel Prize winner in physics. He was doing a question and answer session in Copenhagen. He had been laying out the fundamental nature of quantum physics for the public—I reassure noble Lords that I do not intend to do that—and talking about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which basically says that you cannot predict where a particle will be at a specific place and time, and vice versa. The question that triggered the answer was: “What influence do you predict quantum physics will have on the world in the future?” He said, somewhat tongue in cheek, given the prominence of the principle he was talking about:

“It is exceedingly difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future”.

It is not just the future that is difficult. There is some argument as to whether Niels Bohr was the first person to say that. Some people say it was the American baseball player Yogi Berra; others say, “No, it was a Danish poet”; and some have insisted that it was actually Mark Twain who came up with it. It is difficult to predict the future; it is not even easy to know what has happened in the past. Both these things apply when we think about the challenges that we had with Covid.

The other problem is that if we cannot predict the future, how can we try to deal with it? I think the answer is that we can plan for the future and we can try to protect ourselves from the future, even when we cannot predict exactly what it will be like. But here is where the problem arose in Covid. We had reports, we had plans, we had those who had set out the possibility that there would be such a thing, but the plans were not implemented. When it came to PPE, it was not that nobody reckoned we might have a pandemic—people knew there would be a pandemic at some point, but everybody hoped it would not be on their watch—but it was very costly to provide PPE and it did not last for ever. One of the questions I have for the Minister is not just how we can plan for problems that arise, but how we can make sure that those plans are actually implemented. There are all sorts of ways in which this is an issue, and I will come back to some of them.

One thing that has been said is that internet access is now a public utility. It is an absolute requirement. On page 15, we actually say that there ought to be

“a legal right to internet access”,

as has been referred to by a number of previous speakers. In a sense, it is now like water and electricity: you really cannot function without it. Perhaps the Minister will say a little about what the Government have done and what they plan to do, because of course we always plan to have everything done marvellously and in no time at all, but let us try to be as realistic as we can.

Hybrid is what we describe, not just digital. It is not just a question of moving everything over to digital, and there are a whole bunch of reasons for that. I was talking to a young general practitioner of my acquaintance not very long ago and he was complaining about the way things are going. I know that the BMA has been talking about how many GPs want digital, but he said, “I did not go into medicine to work in a call centre. I went into medicine to work with people”. That is extremely important, and I speak as a doctor and psychiatrist. It is crucial to be able to have the relationship directly with people and for them to be there.

There is a certain amount that it is possible to do on the internet, but there are other things that you cannot do. My eldest son started a relationship with a young woman in São Paulo, and I said, “How are you going to make out with that? You don’t have the money to go backwards and forwards”. He said, “We’ll be on Skype every day”, and they were. Then they got married, and a while after I said, “Wasn’t it great that you were able to go on Skype?” and he said, “Yes, Dad, but there are some things you just can’t do on Skype”. The reality is that digital—Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp and all these things—is wonderful, but there are some important things about human relationships that you cannot do in that way. As a doctor, there are certain things it is much more difficult to do, such as making diagnoses. It is a lot easier when a person walks into the room with a limp than when they are already sitting down in front of the camera. It is hybrid we are looking to, not just digital. That hybrid may be different for different people—not just for the professionals I have already mentioned, but the patients. Some will prefer digital, but some people find it not just difficult but not to their taste or preference.

That business of working directly also helps to protect us when things run into problems digitally. When we wrote and published this report, there had not yet been an open Russia-Ukraine war—at least not one recognised as such. I mentioned the work of the Changing Character of War Centre. One of our reports looked at the vulnerability of our digital systems to attack. In 2017, there was an attack, probably from North Korea, called WannaCry, which had a huge impact on the NHS. One reason it had that impact was that the Microsoft software used by the overwhelming majority of NHS trusts was no longer supported by Microsoft. Everybody knew it, but they had not transferred to a system that was still supported. Tens of thousands of NHS appointments were missed. It was resolved by a young security researcher in rural Devonshire, who very quickly came up with a solution, but in the meantime a huge number of computers had been infected. It was a really serious problem.

We are now in a situation where it is not just North Korea. Thousands of people are working under the Governments of countries such as Russia and China, as well as North Korea and others, doing nothing but working out how to damage our resilience. I would like the Minister not to spell out exactly what the Government are doing—that would not be wise—but to give some reassurance that they are seriously addressing this. We are in a war, however we characterise or address it. It is a serious one and will go on for a long time. It might go on for longer than some of us are around. All sorts of things will be done.

This is an additional problem, not a replacement. In November 2021, one of the Members in the other place said that he was unhappy about cutting back on defence spending. Boris Johnson said, “Oh, no need to worry about that. Tanks and landmass wars in Europe are a thing of the past. It’s not going to happen at all”. That was about three months before the invasion of Ukraine. He said, “It’ll all be cyber and all that kind of stuff”. He was right that cyber has played a part, but the problem with war is that you do not give up the old ways of doing war, you simply add new ones. I want some reassurance from the Government that, in doing what is recommended by this report, which is grabbing hold of the challenges and opportunities of digital, we maintain hybrid—that is, understanding that we also have to address the old ways of working with things.

These are difficult and dangerous times. We have to learn. We do not have the resources that we would like to have to deal with these things, but all of us would like some reassurance that the Government not only understand but grasp that and can give a degree of confidence that they are dealing with it.

My Lords, I join other Members of the Grand Committee in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on the report, which is hugely valuable. Although some time has passed since it was published, it is still fresh and useful for government and all of us to understand the changing nature of the digital world.

I feel humble to be in the noble Baroness’s presence and privileged to be able to join in this debate. I am delighted that she is here and in better health than she has been. She is a terrific advocate for the benefit of expertise in this House. We owe her a huge debt of gratitude. Her background in the digital realm is legendary and speaks for itself. The Government should have availed themselves of her expertise and insight rather earlier—and, of course, that of her fellow committee members represented here.

I have taken part in many committee report debates over the years—in fact, I have been responsible for ensuring that committee reports have been authored—and rarely have we seen a committee feel so compelled to publish a follow-up document that criticises the Government’s response. It is very much needed, and I say that not in an adversarial sense but because it adds to the quality of our thinking in debating this important subject. Of course, as the committee acknowledged, this may have been due to the cross-departmental nature of the report: it remains to be seen whether the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will help or hinder efforts to facilitate cross-government co-operation on digital matters. I rather hope it helps.

As the report makes clear, the pandemic rapidly accelerated digital transformation—all speakers today have drawn attention to that very obvious point. People’s habits changed quickly and, while we have thankfully returned to relative normality, many of those changes in behaviour have persisted and grown. It has certainly changed my working world: the time I give to a charity has been made much easier by the widespread adoption of Teams, Zoom and so on. Travel has been reduced but content has increased and output has certainly increased—my output, too.

Whether it is the digital strategy, which we acknowledge has been updated since the report was published, or the AI strategy, Ministers have faced legitimate criticism for being behind the curve on technological change, being too slow to spot opportunities and even slower to mitigate risks. Although the Government may not have been able to anticipate the precise speed of change brought about by the pandemic, the shift to a hybrid world, as all speakers have acknowledged today, was under way well before Covid-19 struck, and policy in some areas should have been more thought through than was evidently the case.

The report discussed issues around the availability of IT devices and speedy and affordable internet connections, noting, among other things, the regrettable reality of the thousands of schoolchildren unable to participate in remote learning during the lockdown. I know from my own charity world experience about the extraordinary steps we had to take to ensure that children could get greater access to IT—shared laptops; trying to log on using generally available wifi. We had to tackle all those things to try to provide a bit more of a level playing field for kids in hard-up communities where digital access was rare or very remote.

Although some progress is being made in rolling out fibre broadband connections and upgrading mobile infrastructure, it remains the case that central government targets are routinely missed and/or downgraded. With many families still struggling with the cost of living crisis, it is surprising that the Government have not done more to promote broadband providers’ social tariffs. Instead, the department and the regulator are leaving it largely to operators, which have no incentive to proactively offer customers a cheaper product. The committee talked about the importance of improving digital literacy—again, all participants today have drawn attention to this—yet it has taken months of cross-party pressure to persuade Ministers to reinstate media literacy provisions to the Online Safety Bill after they were mysteriously dropped following the period of pre-legislative scrutiny.

Public service transformation is another important issue covered by the committee, and one where the Government’s progress has also been slow. I was at a Google presentation today, and it is so obvious when you listen to what Google says that public services could be transformed with better use of data and a more advanced digital strategy.

My own party has been clear about how new technologies could make public services more efficient and responsive to users’ needs. As we have heard this afternoon, AI tools can bring about better health outcomes, particularly for cancer patients, in terms of diagnosis; help spot mistakes or fraud in the welfare system; and provide more personalised plans for those seeking employment, changing career or training. Mind you, I am sad to say that it would not have been much use with crumbling concrete because the advice would have been ignored. The point here is that it is about making intelligent use of data and the insight that the new world of digital and the hybrid future of work bring about.

We are also clear that, as many jobs become hybrid or online only, employment rights must keep pace and workers’ well-being must be safeguarded. The Government have pledged on several occasions to introduce an employment Bill that begins to reflect the new world of work, but still we wait.

Another salient issue covered by the report is that of resilience against cyberattacks and other threats. As more public services move online and more transactions are undertaken online—or should be—systems become more vulnerable to attack and individuals become more vulnerable to costly scams. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, drew attention to the cyberattacks on the health service. We know that the Government and their relevant agencies, including the National Cyber Security Centre, take these threats seriously—we all must —but it is clear from recent events in Northern Ireland that more must be done to safeguard systems and data.

I think we all recognise and understand that the internet is in general a force for good. It brings people closer together, but it can also make them feel more remote from one another. We have to balance those things and find a way through that. It gives us access to information and entertainment and it can enable us to be more productive, creative, thoughtful and thinking. However, when it comes to the Government’s approach to the digital transformation accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, all is not well. The UK is by no means the worst but there is much more to do if we are to ensure that the benefits are spread not only evenly but fairly, and that risks are properly managed.

I have a few questions for the Minister. How will the Government keep their digital strategy fresh? That is essential. For instance, will they have a plan to ensure that we take advantage of the electronic trade documents legislation, which is urgent? I had no sense of a strategy when we were dealing with that Bill; I know that the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, shares that view.

Can the Government assure us that they will build into the design of future public services a commitment to tackling the digital divide? I believe that to be a fundamental issue of fairness and probity and essential for us to maximise the benefits of the digital world. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, made that point rather powerfully.

Finally, what assessment are the Government making to guarantee health resilience in the face of likely and future pandemics? I think somebody said—this is an advert—that nobody thought that we would have a pandemic of the sort that we did or could predict the pandemic that we had. I strongly recommend a film made in 2011 called “Contagion”. It is a good watch, but it is scary.

I hope the Minister will deal with some of the issues that we have raised this afternoon. Again, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for a really thought-provoking and valuable committee report, which I hope will help us all shape public policy in future.

My Lords, I join all those who have spoken in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for tabling such an important debate. I do not know the exact optimal moment to have this debate but I find it not very agreeable to be plunged back into those miserable days when we were all locked at home. I remember reflecting, however much I was complaining, how far worse so many families had it—who were not lucky enough to have access to the internet or indeed the physical space to move around in. I also thank all members of the committee for their thoughtful, constructive and strongly reasoned report; it was much appreciated.

It is strange to think about the coronavirus now, 18 months since the last restrictions were lifted in England. But, as many noble Lords have observed today, the world that the pandemic ushered in or accelerated remains all around us. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for his quote from Satya Nadella. In a very short time, so much of our lives moved online, including school classes and conference calls, not to mention hearings in court and committees in Parliament. That such a seismic change could happen in such a short time is testament not only to the brilliant inventions around digital but the decades of government investment in digital infrastructure and mobile connectivity.

Of course, it is no exaggeration to claim that the digital revolution has changed lives in the last half a decade, a great deal for the better but also in some ways for the worse. As many of today’s speakers have rightly emphasised, we know that the digital revolution will work only if we bring everyone with us. That is why DSIT’s mission, and the mission of the Central Digital and Data Office, is to ensure that tech does not diminish our lives but makes our lives longer, happier, healthier and safer.

I turn to some of the specific questions that were raised in the debate. Many noble Lords raised concerns about inequalities in our new digital or hybrid world. One priority of the new office is to increase the specialised talent and capability in all parts of government, so that the digital transformation of government remains supportive for all citizens. The work of the CDDO includes collaboration with the wider non-digital parts of government to drive the adoption of new technologies and break down those silos of digital and non-digital activity. That includes making sure that services are accessible to all users.

In June 2022, the CDDO presented its 21-point road map for digital transformation for central government. The road map sets out how the CDDO will achieve six missions, including transforming public services with efficient digital services. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, my noble friend Lord Holmes and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the UK digital strategy is a cross-government strategy that sets out the Government’s ambitious agenda for digital policy. The strategy covers a wide range of areas, including digital skills, rolling out digital infrastructure and AI. DSIT continues to work across a broad spectrum of digital issues to continue building a more inclusive, competitive and innovative digital economy for the future.

Since the strategy was published last year, we have seen further progress of the Online Safety Bill in Parliament, which is being discussed at Third Reading as we speak. It will keep the UK safe and secure online once in effect. As many noble Lords have highlighted, there is also the continued rollout of world-class digital infrastructure nationwide, with more than 75% of premises in the UK now having access to gigabit-capable networks and 92% coverage of 4G mobile infrastructure.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, highlighted, access to affordable internet for vulnerable people is really important. Low-cost broadband and mobile social tariffs are available in 99% of the UK from 25 different providers. DSIT continues to work closely with Ofcom, operators and consumer groups to raise awareness among eligible groups.

On resilience, which was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Bassam, the 2021 telecommunications Act introduced new powers for the Government to manage the presence of vendors when that presence in the UK networks poses particular national security risks. These set rigorous new obligations on public telecoms providers to ensure the security and resilience of their networks and services.

On digital skills, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, noted, as well as access to digital infrastructure and accessibility, digital skills are fundamental to addressing barriers associated with digital exclusion. In 2022, DCMS launched the Digital Skills Council, bringing together government and industry to drive industry-led action to grow the digital workforce. In partnership with FutureDotNow, the council co-funded a road map last year for collective action to build basic digital capability in working-age adults. Building on the £30 million investment made available in 2021 for the Connect the Classroom pilot programme, the Department for Education is investing up to a further £200 million to upgrade schools that fall below our wifi connectivity standards in priority areas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, raised concerns about digital skills in the public sector, particularly in schools and hospitals. New teachers continue to benefit from mandatory training and the Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory safeguarding guidance, while employers in the health system continue to be responsible for ensuring that their staff are trained to the required standards.

Helping children and young people to fulfil their potential is a government priority, through an ambitious multiyear programme for education recovery, with almost £5 billion available. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, highlighted, access to devices is important. DfE delivered more than 1.95 million laptops and tablets to schools, trusts, local authorities and further education providers for disadvantaged children and young people as part of a £520 million government investment to support access to remote education and online social care services. To support levelling up education standards, DfE is targeting specific support in 55 education investment areas.

My noble friend Lady Fraser raised concerns about families who have children with special needs and disabilities. The Department for Education provides £27.3 million a year to deliver grants and support to low-income families raising disabled or seriously ill children and young people. These grants are for items and services not provided by the statutory system to improve quality of life and ease additional daily pressures; for example, paying for devices to help home learning.

On health, the Government agree with my noble friend Lady Fraser that a blended model with a mixture of face-to-face and digital services is needed to ensure that individuals receive the best treatment for them and their circumstances. The Department of Health is striving for digital services to improve access, outcomes and experience for the widest range of people, based on their preferences. Patients unable to use digital channels can continue to access services via telephone and through traditional face-to-face services. In June 2022, A Plan for Digital Health and Social Care was published. This set out a vision and plan for digitally transformed health and social care services, including a road map for providing additional functionality for patients and the public through our national digital channels.

My noble friend Lord Holmes highlighted the need to embrace new technologies. Work has continued to embed the digital technology assessment criteria within NHS organisations. In October 2022, the first NHS digital health technology audit was launched across secondary care to ensure that digital technologies continue to be incorporated safely and effectively.

The Government recognise that, for some people, interacting with the Department for Work and Pensions using digital technology brings challenges. From April 2021, jobcentres in England, Scotland and Wales returned to their pre-lockdown opening hours and restarted face-to-face appointments. The Chancellor announced a comprehensive package of measures at the Spring Budget targeted at increasing workforce participation and reducing economic inactivity. This includes investment to support disabled people and those with long-term health conditions, parents, over-50s, unemployed people and those on universal credit. The DWP Budget measures represent an investment of £3.5 billion over five years to boost workforce participation.

My noble friend Lady Fraser also highlighted the importance of the Government supporting flexible working. The Government remain committed to helping all individuals and businesses work flexibly. That is why we have supported the new employment relations Act, which updates and amends the existing right to request flexible working so that it better supports employers and employees to make arrangements that work for both sides. The Government have worked with the Flexible Working Taskforce to produce guidance on hybrid working. The guidance supports businesses in establishing this as best practice.

Finally, the Government are committed to building a more connected society, where everyone is able to build meaningful relationships. As my noble friend Lord Holmes has highlighted, we recognise that digital acceleration can be a barrier to as well as an enabler for social connection and we are taking action across government to support people who feel lonely. Since publishing our world-first tackling loneliness strategy in 2018, DCMS has supported thousands of people through targeted funding into community projects up and down the country. To help build communal spaces for business, education and community purposes, the Government have invested £2.35 million through the town deals fund and £830 million through the future high streets fund. These funds are transforming local communities across England.

In closing, I once again convey my thanks to the noble Baroness for securing today’s vital debate and indeed to the whole committee for its report. I am grateful, too, for the many thoughtful contributions that we have heard during the debate. The Government are unwavering in their commitment to bridge the digital divides that were laid bare by the Covid pandemic, exposing a marked and unacceptable gap between the digital haves and have-nots.

As I have referenced in my remarks today, since the Covid committee’s 2021 report, we have made real strides in closing that gap, whether that is in digital infrastructure, with over three-quarters of the country now accessing gigabit-capable broadband, or in digital skills and training, with roughly 42 million adults in the UK today having the essential digital skills that they need for day-to-day life. In our schools and colleges, we have delivered more than 1.95 million laptops and tablets to help some of the most disadvantaged children and young people. In our NHS, 47 million people can now book and manage their out-patient appointments.

At the same time, we are not complacent about the scale of the challenges that remain. That is why we are pressing ahead with the Online Safety Bill and are fulfilling our commitment to spend at least £20 billion per annum on R&D by 2024-25. Our upcoming AI Safety Summit will provide a unique opportunity for the UK to work with countries around the globe to ensure that this transformative technology works for humanity and not against it.

These are just some of DSIT’s priorities over the coming weeks and months, and I can assure the noble Baroness and noble Lords across the Committee that we really are keen to work hand in hand with them to make this a success. Together, we will continue to build the stronger, safer and fairer post-Covid world that we all want to see.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his concluding remarks, and I thank everyone for participating in the debate. These are complex issues and tricky to unpick, and this is the first of what I hope will be two or three debates about our work looking at the long-terms implications of Covid. It is impossible to do enough justice to the things that we uncovered in just this one short debate.

I end by saying that it feels bittersweet standing here: bitter, because we unearthed so many unbearable inequalities in our work and so many things that we felt needed to change, but somehow sweet, because pretty much every person in the debate reaffirmed the importance of face-to-face contact, human interaction and maintaining the combination of mechanisms that we have in order to build fulfilling lives. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.