Digital exclusion compounds social isolation and loneliness. We must ensure all government services are accessible to those who are not online, argues Derek Thomas MP

Loneliness kills. The effect of loneliness on mortality is on a par with obesity and smoking; loneliness carries an increased risk of depression, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress response; older people who are lonely are at greater risk of cognitive decline and the onset of dementia. And loneliness hits the most vulnerable people the hardest.

In a room of one hundred people there will be those who are vulnerable: small children, people with visual or hearing impairment, severe learning disabilities or debilitating conditions.

But within this room you will find others who feel vulnerable simply because the way we do daily modern society is withdrawing from them. They can no longer access what they may have taken for granted just a few years ago.

As public services increasingly move online, day-to-day essentials such as banking, making an NHS appointment or even paying for parking become more difficult for those who do not use the internet.

And the more difficult everyday life becomes and the more people feel they are left behind, the more loneliness: already one in three people over the age of 75 say that their loneliness is out of control.

For some older people, technology can be a way to combat loneliness and isolation – perhaps, like the 70 year old lady in my constituency, because they have a grandson who can set them up on Zoom.

But for many elderly people this is not the case. Social isolation leads to digital exclusion, and digital exclusion leads to further social isolation. Life becomes more difficult for the 2.7 million people aged 65 and over who do not use the internet, or for people with disabilities, who make up 60 per cent of internet non-users.

The Government has not published a Digital Inclusion Strategy since 2014 – but so much more of everyday life is online now. It is easy to forget that over three million people aged 65 or over do not use a smartphone – and 1.6 million don’t use any sort of mobile phone at all.

In the recent campaign against ticket office closures on the rail network, the RMT produced posters which were passionate about how the proposals would not work for people who were not connected to the internet. Their posters provided details on how to object – through a QR code.

This campaign was, however, a turning-point – after the many years of a relentless drive online, Government began to appreciate how much would be lost if vulnerable people were not catered for. In my own constituency, where more people objected to the closure of the Penzance ticket office than that of any other station on the GWR network, their biggest complaint was that the loss of a ticket office would make it more difficult for elderly and vulnerable people to plan their journeys and buy tickets.

These objections persuaded the Government that it should ask the train operators to withdraw their proposals.

This example of the Department of Transport must be followed across all government departments, and I brought the debate to ask the Minister for Loneliness, Stuart Andrew, to lead on this work.

We have protected elderly people who can’t navigate the internet but want to navigate a journey by rail – now we need to help them navigate their day-to-day lives.

All government services should be accessible to those who are not online – at the moment many councils provide no offline access to housing benefit, council tax reductions, rebates, or Blue Badge applications.

Access to cash, as well, is essential for elderly people, many of whom cannot or will not bank online. Age UK’s research shows that 27 per cent of people over 65 manage their accounts via a branch; they need post offices or banking hubs to access the cash they need for everyday life.

And, perhaps most importantly, the NHS should ensure that remote consultations do not become the norm. When I asked my constituents what we could do to ensure that people are not isolated because of technology, face-to-face GP appointments was the top priority for over three-quarters of responses.

In the long run, social isolation will cost the NHS, and the Government, more than the costs of providing offline alternatives. Loneliness can increase the risk of early mortality by 26 per cent: on a par with smoking as a risk factor. The Government plans to eliminate smoking altogether: it should take a similar aggressive approach to tackling loneliness.

Derek Thomas MP

Derek Thomas is the Conservative MP for St Ives, was first elected in 2015.