Online must not be the only option

Online must not be the only option

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<p><figcaption class=Photo: Lauren Hurley/PA

On the eve of this week’s rail strikes, it was reported that industry bosses plan to phase out paper train tickets and close nearly 1,000 ticket offices in stations across England. The government says nothing has been decided. But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has made no secret of his desire to make savings in this way; Some stations, Mr Shapps points out, only sell a handful of tickets a week and the vast majority of transactions have been done online.

Regardless of the outcome of the current standoff with the RMT union, the direction is clear. In the name of modernization and cost-cutting, train station ticket offices are likely to follow many bank branches and rural post offices in the vaults of sepia-toned memory. Anyone who has gotten used to the advantages of organizing travel via smartphone will have little to complain about. But for those without online access or skills – who tend to be older, poorer and more vulnerable – another small social barrier will have been erected.

From family doctor appointments to payment apps for parking, more and more important services are being provided digitally. Cash-strapped local governments looking for efficiencies are inexorably moving their operations online. BT plans to phase out traditional landlines by 2025. As this revolution takes place, unwarranted assumptions are being made about the ability of some users to handle it. In health and social care, it will often be those most in need of help who are least able to find digital access to help. A recent Ofcom report estimates that around 6% of households – 1.5 million households – do not have internet access. Millions more of us remain irregular and insecure users of the Internet. As digital technology becomes the gatekeeper to part of everyday life – a process accelerated by the pandemic – a significant minority risks being marginalized and isolated.

The unstoppable online shift is inevitable, but its consequences need to be managed with greater care. Technology should not allow people to be pushed to the side of their own lives, as anecdotal evidence suggests is increasingly the case. Ros Altmann, the former pensions secretary and fellow Conservative, recently wrote that she was contacted by an elderly woman who no longer drives to her local park because she cannot download the required parking app. As the range and complexity of digital demands increases, the desperate recruitment of middle-aged sons and daughters as unpaid consultants has become a phenomenon of our times. Meanwhile, the increasing rarity of face-to-face interactions when transacting — or simply seeking advice and information — can increase feelings of isolation among the lonely.

The ticket office debate provides an opportunity to think more broadly about the increasing role of technology in our social landscape. Clearly much more needs to be invested in helping marginalized groups gain easy access online. But the variety of offers must also be protected. Some people will never take to smartphones or tablets to do important tasks. Alternative and viable offline options must be provided for important services. Reachable phone numbers and manned public access points should always be available. This will cost more. But that’s the price of being fair to those on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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