Citizens Online Calls for Free Internet For All during Covid-19

Emergency: coronavirus disease (covid-10) outbreak white text on red background pictured on a screen

Citizens Online is a leading organisation working on the problem of ‘digital exclusion’. This happens when people can’t access the internet or don’t have the skills or confidence to use it.

People of all ages may experience digital inequality, but older people are more likely to be in this group. They are also at higher risk of being affected by the Coronavirus and being additionally socially isolated. This means they are more likely to be cut off from essential support without skills, confidence and access to online help. We are concerned about the possible implications and are determined to put our knowledge and experience to good use.

We’re here to help.

Our call on government 

Below we detail some of the measures we are taking, and projects we are working on to help. Before these, we want to make a major call on government:

Make the internet free during the Coronavirus pandemic to ensure essential access to the online world for everyone in the UK

  • We believe the internet is a utility necessary to life in the 21st century.
  • Now more than ever, cost must not be a barrier to the services and tools the internet provides.
  • We therefore call on the government to make internet access free for everyone in the UK during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Our experience tells us that access to connectivity alone will not ensure digital inclusion, but it is an essential first step. Particularly at a moment when employment and incomes are threatened.
  • We will make further recommendations around how we believe government can help with regard to devices, skills, and confidence as soon as possible.
  • Citizens Online have always held the view that “every single person who wants to be online should have the ability to do so”.
  • We note that the Labour Party proposed free broadband for everyone in the UK ahead of the recent election.

Digital exclusion and social distancing / self-isolation

Efforts to contain and limit the coronavirus pandemic are disrupting every aspect of our lives. The UK government’s new guidance on “social distancing”, and self-isolation for vulnerable people, leads people to use digital solutions and services to work from home, contact family and keep up-to-date with latest health information.

The national 111 NHS advice phone line is requesting people use an online symptom checker rather than calling the service to help manage demand.

Many of us will easily adjust to working and socialising through the internet… but not everyone.

More than a third of the population aged 65+ and more than half of the population aged 75+ (53.1%) are not online (have never used the internet or last used it over 3 months ago). Older people are also more likely to lack digital skills.

More than half of people aged 65 and over were missing either Essential Digital Skills1 or Foundation skills (55%, 2019 Consumer Digital Index), compared to just 6% of those aged 15-34.

The “most financially vulnerable” – who are less likely to have a landline, mobile, or broadband – are more likely than average to live in a mobile-only household (28% as opposed to 21% nationally). Around one in ten people in this group (8%) only have access to the internet via a mobile (Ofcom, Access and inclusion in 2018).

There have been well-publicised issues related to the Digital by Default nature of Universal Credit.

What we are doing now:

  • We have published a list of recommended resources we’ve gathered from around the web to help you stay in touch with family, friends or colleagues during the coronavirus outbreak. Or to help you to help others. We are preparing further content on these issues.
  • We are letting organisations know that we can help them to supporting digitally excluded groups at this time, by providing guidence and consultancy on issues of digital transformation or digital exclusion raised by the pandemic (you can learn about our Switch offer, and wider suite of services on our website).

As an organisation we are: 

  • Working from home.
  • Cancelling all face to face events and workshops and switching to webinars and other online alternatives wherever possible.
  • Supporting our clients through this difficult time.

Find out more about our work at

Follow us on twitter @citizensonline1 .